Ellen Pao: Fifth Generation Feminism in Silcon Valley?

This morning the Twitter story of the day screamed at me “Men invented the internet“. “Ellen Pao, a junior partner in her early 40s at the distinguished venture capital firm of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, filed a sexual discrimination lawsuit against the company and her colleagues there.” Her claims in the wake of Facebook’s board “diversity” scandal, sound all too familiar: The frathouse behavior, the silent passing over for promotions, the “quiet” acceptance of male dominance in leadership roles. Her accusation a partner retaliated against an office fling gone sour could be straight out of “The Social Network”. Is there no fury like a Silicon Valley tech nerd rejected?

No. There isn’t. I say it from experience, from the women I’ve known who think coke-bottle glasses are cute, and attend Girls in Tech events, and the coders, and designers, and social media geeks who pepper the dark corners of the internet with their unfulfilled fantasies. While chasing their interests they’ve inadvertently struck gold. The tech community is an incredibly self-assured, physically insecure and competitive subculture. The competition to be known, to make it big and to bring in the dollars, is a brilliant light show streaming from the tiny liquid crystals we are composed of. Competition is coded into their DNA.

In biology there is only one kind of competition: Gaining the most resources to have the most successful offspring.

According to Pao’s accusations, the men at Kleiner justified keeping women in the lower level roles and salaries. They said women would not succeed because they were “too quiet”. One partner told Pao women were not invited to dinner deals because they would “kill the buzz”.

Competitive instinct is part of a new thought school both sides of the feminist debate are trying to understand: How do the biological differences between men and women affect the way they behave in the business world? Ellen Pao was a venture capitalist. Interestingly, finance is analyzed most often because it is one of the most lucrative career paths, and if success can be measured by accumulation of resources, a money career definitely trumps them all. It is also a male dominated field.

One study was investigating testosterone levels of women in finance. Another study had shown men tended to make riskier decisions, and earn the top most and bottom majority of ROI in their portfolios, while women made “safer” decisions and the middle to upper-middle in ROI. The scientists wanted to know if women with higher testosterone levels engaged in riskier or more competitive behavior than women with lower levels: The answer was yes, the more testosterone, the riskier the behavior within a gender.

So where does that leave us? Is it fair that men can be expected to be more competitive? Can women compete with them while they are competing for women? Should we start testing testosterone levels instead of personality tests?

There have been five eras to feminism:

1. Getting the vote
2. Entering the workforce
3. Demanding equal pay
4. Wanting to be “one of the boys”
5. Gaining maternity leave and the acknowledgment women are different, but equally capable.

In fourth-generation feminism we’re taught it’s better not to complain. Stories like Pao’s raise the hair on our backs, but are dismissed just as quickly. Sandy Kurtzig, an entrepreneur funded by Kleiner Perkins, would be a fourth-generation feminist. She is quoted: “I always thought the world was going to be gender-blind.”

I was raised by a fourth-generation feminist, in a slightly socialist city which caters to smart girls with athletic abilities. In the 1960s my mother had been given a common test to determine how “masculine” or “feminine” she was. She was an only child who liked trucks, sports and rough-housing with a family of five boys. The test makers told her she “thought like a boy”. Thirty years later in shoulder pads and Chanel, she was still playing with boys, while I was growing up with Barbies and not knowing the difference.

When I left for a university which was 70% women, in the business school, I never knew why my friends complained about the gender ratio. All my classes were filled with tall, masculine bros. In business school, they taught us a survival of the fittest theory which states all discrimination is ultimately bad for financial success because it illogically excludes a potentially better fitted talent pool from competition. Rather than teach business students it’s morally wrong to discriminate, the idea appeals to our pocket books: Why exclude a bunch a intelligent workers who can make you more money?

No transition in thought is ever complete, and fourth and fifth generation feminism run parallel in society still. I’ve seen the divide in academia and the transition to the career world, where fem lit majors choose to put on skits from the Vagina Monologues, and business majors put on closed-toed heels to give presentations on Michael Dell and Steve Jobs besides their 6 ft. tall team mates. A “blind” fourth-generation feminist can walk confidently into a PR firm or Wall Street after graduation, but as soon as she’s found herself in a cubicle farm of pearls or briefcases, the gender lines become clearer. A career choice that was based on personal interests or financial ambition begins to elicit a subconscious nagging question: Was this my choice or society’s?


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