Revisiting "Reset"

Julie Letchner

September 19, 2018

When I first read Reset, I used sticky neon flags to mark every passage that reflected an experience I’d had personally. When I finished, my copy of the book looked like it had swallowed a family of flamboyant octopi made by a kindergarten art class. In a 269-page volume, the longest stretch between two flags was 27 pages.

Pao’s story is uniquely hers, but it is woven from threads of bias and exclusion that are exhaustingly familiar to every woman and minority in tech.

I nodded in recognition as I flagged the page where Pao describes squirming uncomfortably through the pornographic conversations of her business colleagues. What woman hasn’t found herself in the same impossible situation as Pao, forced to choose between removing herself from these conversations —thereby undermining business relationships and access to information — or participating in inappropriate behavior and damaging her integrity and reputation?

I sighed knowingly as I pressed a flag next to Pao’s description of the boss who repeatedly confused her for the other Asian woman (white, for me) working in the office. How could either of us expect proper recognition of our work from people who weren’t quite sure who was doing it? If we speak up about seemingly small mix-ups like this, though, we are dismissed as over-sensitive; if we speak up on our own behalf about our accomplishments, we are criticized as abrasive and ambitious; if we do nothing, our careers stall, and when we finally speak up (or sue), we are blamed for having been complacent.

I stuck a flag over the text of the email admonishing Pao for asking for a raise to match her salary with that of a male peer. I pasted yet another flag onto the passage in which she recalls performance reviews describing her as too aggressive, but also not confident enough. I stuck another, and another, and another.

Pao speaks for every woman in tech — and beyond — when she wonders:

Is it just me? Is it possible that I am really too ambitious while being too quiet while being too aggressive while being unlikeable? Are my elbows too sharp? Am I not promoting myself enough, or am I too self-promotional? Am I not funny enough or not serious enough? Am I not working hard enough? Do I belong?

This paragraph screamed for a handful of flags, but I had to limit myself to just one. My booklet of stickies was nearly empty.

The core narrative of Reset is Pao’s slow-motion, career-long realization that the obstacles she faces are systemic and can't be solved through tenacity or excellence alone. Her opening line is, “I grew up firmly believing the world was a meritocracy.” Near the book’s end, she writes:

Over the years, my friends and I all had similar epiphanies about diversity in tech. At first, we'd thought individuals were the problem. ... Then we chalked the problem up to the companies we worked for. ... [eventually] though, many of us had come to realize that the whole tech system had exclusion built into its design.

Pao spent decades downplaying the effects of discrimination and bias, internalizing these effects as personal failings and attempting to overcome them by leaning in just a little bit harder. Like so many women before her, she finally stepped back and said, enough.

Pao is not alone in reaching a breaking point. Reset cites a 2014 Harvard Business Review study that reveals just how common this trajectory is: “Over time, fully 52% of highly qualified women working for [STEM companies] quit their jobs, driven out by hostile work environments and extreme work pressures, and a lack of clarity surrounding career paths.” I, too, was briefly a participant in this statistic — I recently took a year away from tech to re-evaluate whether my love of the work burned brightly enough to pull me back into a culture that feels perpetually foreign (it did).

What makes Pao unique is that she had the courage and the financial resources to say enough publicly. Her gender discrimination lawsuit shone a spotlight not only on individual bad actors, but also on systemic cultural problems within the tech sector.

Such high-stakes scrutiny was bound to reverberate in an industry that drives away more than half – more than half! — of its female contributors. Whether Pao struck a chord or a nerve depends on one’s perspective. She was vilified in the media as opportunistic, delusional, greedy, hypocritical, and worse. But she received an outpouring of support and appreciation after her loss in court, from people for whom she had become a symbol of validation and hope. One woman wrote her a letter, published in Reset and flagged in my copy, saying, “Je suis Ellen Pao.” A group of women who didn’t personally know Pao crowd-funded a full-page ad in the Palo Alto Daily Post. It said, simply, “Thanks Ellen.”

Pao lost her trial, but she won the gratitude and respect of people who see their own experience in hers. She set an example that raised both the expectations and the courage of the women who follow her. She fired a warning shot that continues to echo through Silicon Valley.

Eleven months and several re-reads later, the sticky notes sprouting from my copy of Reset have curled and their colors have faded. Their diminished exuberance is an embarrassingly obvious metaphor for Pao’s grinding path and for the weariness of anyone struggling to outlast a system working against them. For all the catharsis that Pao presumably found in the telling of her story, and for all the validation that women like me feel while reading it, we are left with an obvious and stubborn question: Now what?

Pao acknowledges and struggles with the lack of a clear call to action. After much consideration, she concludes, "The first step to solving the problem ... [is] to accelerate the conversation.”

In 2017, news headlines hinted that the conversation about tech culture was indeed accelerating. Susan Fowler published a blog post in February detailing harassment and toxicity at Uber. It led within months to the removal of high-profile C.E.-Bro Travis Kalanick. That summer saw a handful of VCs (Justin Caldbeck, Chris Sacca, Dave McClure) resign over allegations of sexual misconduct. Reset was released in September, just four days after Mike Cagney resigned as CEO of SoFi over allegations of harassment and inappropriate relationships.

But — and here is where mere frustration condenses into the white-hot rage of the impotent — Silicon Valley is granting a decidedly un-meritocratic level of forgiveness to at least some of these offenders. Mike Cagney, for example, announced in July 2018 that he had raised $58 million in VC money for his next company (meanwhile, just 2% of VC money went to female-founded companies in 2017). Since his resignation, Justin Caldbeck has been offered speaking slots at multiple conferences focused on diversity in tech.

The tech world proudly calls itself a meritocracy while fully rewarding the merits of only a privileged few. Reset highlights its hypocrisy. Pao describes example after example of second and third and fourth chances given to men (usually white) with proven histories of sexism, harassment, lying, and illegal behavior. Meanwhile, she and others from underrepresented groups walk impossible tightropes to avoid mistakes, knowing that additional chances will not be readily granted to them.

Pao describes Marissa Mayer’s tenure as CEO of Yahoo! as one example of Silicon Valley’s double standards:

...the media kept criticizing her. Nothing she did was good enough — from how she posed for magazine stories to what kind of parties she threw. They belabored her salary — right up until her replacement came in and got twice her salary right off the bat.

Pao goes on to contrast the media’s treatment of Mayer with their treatment of Mayer’s male contemporaries:

Can you name the founder/CEO who hit his girlfriend one hundred seventeen times? … Or the one recently accused of writing computer programs to perpetuate fraud at Zenefits? Or the one at Hampton Creek who reportedly had teams of employees buying their own products to boost sales to show potential investors? Can you name any of Marissa’s predecessors who helped drive Yahoo! into the sorry state it was in when she joined?

Pao’s personal story, and her articulation of the exclusionary effects of tech’s systemic biases, resonated with millions of us. Still, in the end, she lost her trial.

Where does that leave us? Now what?

Ellen Pao has done what she set out to do. She has accelerated the conversation.

Through her book, she has accelerated a recognition that tech is not a meritocracy just because its most privileged participants say so. Through her nonprofit Project Include, she has accelerated the conversion of frustration and hope into public discussion and activism. Through her lawsuit, she has raised the stakes for individuals and companies who remain willfully ignorant of the progress accelerating around them.

This May, a former Uber engineer sued the company for harassment and improper handling of her complaints, in a lawsuit that will inevitably draw comparisons to Pao’s. Justin Caldbeck’s speaking opportunities have been rescinded after sustained protests and boycotts led by women. Uber and Microsoft have recently ended practices of forced arbitration, meaning that their employees can now file harassment and discrimination claims in court and speak about them publicly (as opposed to having them handled privately within the company).

Increasingly, people are speaking up when the mechanisms of bias and exclusion become tangible. Increasingly, people are speaking up in favor of inclusive practices that will nudge tech in the direction of the meritocracy that it claims and wants to be. Ellen Pao showed us how.

Thanks, Ellen.

Books in this review:
  • Reset
    by Ellen Pao
    Spiegel & Grau
    September 19, 2017
    288 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Julie is a data scientist and a writer; a PhD and a mother of three; a feminist and a wife. She writes about tech, feminism, and their awkward relationship at www.julieletchner.com.

Follow Julie Letchner on Twitter: @julieletchner

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