Monthly Archive: March 2015

Silicon Valley Gender Discrmination Lawsuit

First published at, March 2015


Ellen Pao, now serving as the interim CEO of Reddit, is suing her former employer, the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, of gender discrimination because it failed to promote her during her time there and fired her when she complained in 2012. The ongoing trial, as Mother Jones discovered, is a fountain of hilarious details about life in the upper echelons of the tech world: $300 board games about excelling in business, confusing corporate jargon that sounds ridiculous in a courtroom setting, discussions of the Playboy Mansion on private jets, and debates about the difference between “cocky” and “confident.” At one point, the court reporter had to ask about the spelling of “Klout,” a detail that will likely find its way into the third season of Silicon Valley.

But despite all the goofiness, the question at the heart of the trial is one that will resonate with plenty of women who aren’t vying for offices in the “power corridor” of a VC firm: How do you determine what is and isn’t gender discrimination in a world where you’re competing with men on decidedly subjective terms? Pao is arguing that she didn’t get promoted because a sexist, bro-y environment didn’t make room for women. The defense, however, is arguing that it wasn’t her gender but her inability to meet the firm’s standards on frustratingly vague measures such as “thought leadership.”

Of course, men tend to get judged very differently than women on a lot of those subjective measurements. Nitasha Tiku at the Verge explains how this is playing out in court:

Another question yesterday concerned Schlein’s notes on a potential male hire from 2011 that seemed to imply the candidate’s “cockiness” was an attribute. (Many of Pao’s performance reviews called her arrogant and brash, noting her “sharp elbows,” where similar aggression in partners like Chien was not a cause for concern.) Schlein was asked to explain when cockiness is a good thing. “If you’re cocky and then by the time you’re done talking to somebody and they don’t like you,” it’s the wrong kind of cocky, he said.
The problem is that the line not to cross—when a person’s confidence becomes a turnoff—is very different depending on gender. Similarly, it’s understandable that VC firms want to hire people who fit the mold of “thought leaders.” But unfortunately, that mold is male-shaped.

Pao’s apparently sole defender at the firm, senior partner John Doerr, took the stand Wednesday and testified that he felt that the VC world is not doing enough to recruit and develop women, but admitted that he felt Pao was not a “team player.” One of the interesting tidbits that came out was an audio recording of Doerr talking about the personalities of the people he liked investing in, as reported by Wired:

At one point in the trial, Pao’s attorney played an audio clip of a conversation between Doerr and Mike Moritz of Sequoia Capital, another industry star, recorded during a May 2008 meeting of the National Venture Capital Association. In the clip, Doerr says it was “very clearly male nerds who had no social or sex lives” and who were dropouts of Harvard or Stanford who were likely to succeed as some of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs. “When I see that pattern coming in … it’s very easy to decide to invest,” Doerr said.
Part of Doerr’s attempts to help Pao during this time involved hiring her social and speech coaches to make her more likable. It’s hard not to sense a double standard here, where “male nerds” without the social skills to build “social or sex lives” are doing so well, but women are expected to work hard on their likability. Is it enough for Pao to prove her accusations of gender discrimination in the absence of more concrete performance measurements? On that, we will have to wait and see.

Clear Writing

This is from the March 2015 issue of Inc Magazine:


While I like to think I know a little about business writing, I often fall into a few word traps. For example, “who” and “whom.” I rarely use “whom” when I should. Even when spell check suggests “whom,” I think it sounds pretentious. So I don’t use it.

And I’m sure some people then think, “What a bozo.”

And that’s a problem, because just as one misspelled word can get a résumé tossed onto the “nope” pile, one wrong word can negatively impact your entire message.

Fair or unfair, it happens.

So let’s make sure it doesn’t.

Adverse and averse

Adverse means harmful or unfavorable: “Adverse market conditions caused the IPO to be poorly subscribed.” Averse refers to feelings of dislike or opposition: “I was averse to paying $18 a share for a company that generates no revenue.”

But you can feel free to have an aversion to adverse conditions.

Affect and effect

Verbs first. Affect means to influence: “Impatient investors affected our roll-out date.”Effect means to accomplish something: “The board effected a sweeping policy change.” How you use effect or affect can be tricky. For example, a board can affect changes by influencing them, or can effect changes by implementing them. Use effectif you’re making it happen, and affect if you’re having an impact on something someone else is trying to make happen.

As for nouns, effect is almost always correct: “Once he was fired he was given 20 minutes to gather his personal effects.” Affect refers to an emotional state, so unless you’re a psychologist, you probably should not be using it.

Compliment and complement

Compliment is to say something nice. Complement is to add to, enhance, improve, complete, or bring close to perfection. So, I can compliment your staff and their service, but if you have no current openings you have a full complement of staff. And your new app may complement your website.

For which I may decide to compliment you.

Criteria and criterion

“We made the decision based on one overriding criteria” sounds pretty impressive but is wrong.

Remember: one criterion, two or more criteria, although you could always use “reason” or “factors” and not worry about getting it wrong.

Discreet and discrete

Discreet means careful, cautious, showing good judgment: “We made discreet inquiries to determine whether the founder was interested in selling her company.”

Discrete means individual, separate, or distinct: “We analyzed data from a number of discrete market segments to determine overall pricing levels.” And if you get confused, remember you don’t use discreetion to work through sensitive issues; you exercise discretion.

Elicit and illicit

Elicit means to draw out or coax. Think of elicit as the mildest form of extract or, even worse, extort. So if one lucky survey respondent will win a trip to the Bahamas, the prize is designed to elicit responses.

Illicit means illegal or unlawful. I suppose you could “illicit” a response at gunpoint … but you best not.

Farther and further

Farther involves a physical distance: “Florida is farther from New York than Tennessee.” Further involves a figurative distance: “We can take our business plan no further.” So, as we say in the South, “I don’t trust you any farther than I can throw you.” Or, “I ain’t gonna trust you no further.”

(Seriously. I’ve uttered both of those sentences. More than once.)

Imply and infer

The speaker or writer implies. The listener or reader infers. Imply means to suggest, while infer means to deduce (whether correctly or not). So, I might imply you’re going to receive a raise. You might infer that a pay increase is imminent. (But not eminent, unless the raise will be prominent and distinguished.)

Insure and ensure

This one’s easy. Insure refers to insurance. Ensure means to make sure. So if you promise an order will ship on time, ensure it actually happens. Unless, of course, you plan to arrange for compensation if the package is damaged or lost–then feel free to insure away.

Number and amount

I goof these up all the time. Use number when you can count what you refer to: “Thenumber of subscribers who opted out increased last month.” Amount refers to a quantity of something that can’t be counted: “The amount of alcohol consumed at our last company picnic was staggering.”

Of course it can still be confusing: “I can’t believe the number of beers I drank” is correct, but so is “I can’t believe the amount of beer I drank.” The difference is I can count beers, but beer, especially if I was way too drunk to keep track, is an uncountable total–so amount is the correct usage.

Precede and proceed

Precede means to come before. Proceed means to begin or continue. Where it gets confusing is when an ing comes into play. “The proceeding announcement was brought to you by…” sounds fine, but preceding is correct since the announcement came before.

If it helps, think precedence: Anything that takes precedence is more important and therefore comes first.

Principal and principle

A principle is a fundamental: “We’ve created a culture where we all share certain principles.” Principal means primary or of first importance: “Our startup’s principal is located in NYC.” (Sometimes you’ll also see the plural, principals, used to refer to executives or (relatively) co-equals at the top of a particular food chain.)

Principal can also refer to the most important item in a particular set: “Our principal account makes up 60 percent of our gross revenues.”

Principal can also refer to money, normally a sum that was borrowed, but can be extended to refer to the amount you owe–hence principal and interest.

If you’re referring to laws, rules, guidelines, ethics, etc., use principle. If you’re referring to the CEO or the president (or the individual in charge of the high school), use principal. And now for those dreaded apostrophes.

It’s and its

It’s is the contraction of it is. That means it’s doesn’t own anything. If your dog is neutered (the way we make a dog, however much against his or her will, gender neutral), you don’t say, “It’s collar is blue.” You say, “Its collar is blue.” Here’s an easy test to apply. Whenever you use an apostrophe, un-contract the word to see how it sounds. In this case, turn it’s into it is: “It’s sunny” becomes “It is sunny.” Sounds good to me.

They’re and their

Same with these: They’re is the contraction for they are. Again, the apostrophe doesn’t own anything. We’re going to their house, and I sure hope they’re home.

Who’s and whose

“Whose password hasn’t been changed in six months?” is correct. “Who is (the noncontracted version of who’s) password hasn’t been changed in six months?” sounds silly.

You’re and your

One more. You’re is the contraction of you are. Your means you own it; the apostrophe in you’re doesn’t own anything. For a long time a local nonprofit had a huge sign that said “You’re Community Place.”

Hmm. “You Are Community Place”?

Probably not.