Review of Ellen Pao’s book

“The Self-Styled Martyr of Silicon Valley: The odd tale of Ellen Pao” (Commentary) is a review of Ellen Pao’s Reset book (see Ellen Pao writes something kind of interesting). The review summarizes the facts:

Pao is a former corporate attorney and Silicon Valley entrepreneur who went to work for the venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins and then, in 2012, filed a $16 million gender-discrimination lawsuit against it. She alleged workplace retaliation by a partner at the firm with whom she had a brief affair. Then she alleged that she was fired in retaliation for the lawsuit. Potential damages could have run as high as $144 million.

Is it true that she was an “entrepreneur”? Wikipedia says that she worked for a couple of established companies, such as BEA Systems, prior to joining Kleiner Perkins. Is any non-government job in the U.S. now considered “entrepreneurship”? [And remember that she could have made a lot more than $144 million without risking an unfavorable jury verdict; see Litigious Minds Think Alike: Divorce litigators react to the Ellen Pao v. Kleiner Perkins lawsuit]

Apparently Pao is working her kid pretty hard for the book, having the sad little nine-year-old wonder about the gender balance of a “coding camp.” (Did this happen organically? I’ve seen a lot of gender-unbalanced groups of children and never heard one comment on the gender balance.)

We learn that Pao is a good example of The Son Also Rises and also regression to the mean. Her parents both have engineering PhDs; Pao earned a bachelor’s in engineering and then a law degree.

Based on my experience as a software expert witness, Pao’s description of big law firm life isn’t recognizable:

Pao goes to work for Cravath, Swaine & Moore, … one male partner would always lose his copy of the documents they were working on and would have to look over the shoulder of one of his female underlings. She saw him one day staring down the shirt of one of her female colleagues …. In another instance, “a senior partner would… plant himself just outside the doorway of my colleague’s office, licking an ice cream cone while staring at her.”

Perhaps due to the fact that law firms bill by the hour, I’ve never seen one lawyer simply stand in a hallway for any reason.

The reviewer is as skeptical as the jury regarding Pao’s stated reasons for her failure to make senior partner at Kleiner:

This is all perfectly believable [including the senior partner putting on a display of idleness for everyone else at Cravath to see?], but the problem is that things went downhill for Pao when she started sleeping with one of the other partners—one Ajit Nazre, who was married and had children. … how old do you have to be before you recognize yourself as a walking cliché? Sleeping with a married guy at the office who promises to leave his wife for you?

Apparently estimating the probability of your married sex partner suing his or her spouse is not a subject taught at Princeton or Harvard!

Pao’s conversion (as seen in Bruno) of Buddy Fletcher from homosexual to heterosexual is touched on only lightly in the review: “Fletcher had relationships with men before he married Pao.” This review is the first place that I’ve seen a description of Mr. Fletcher blazing a trail recently followed by some Hollywood celebrities:

It’s no surprise that Pao’s book doesn’t get into the fact that Fletcher himself has been accused of sexual harassment and discrimination by employees. In 2003, Fletcher was sued by a man he’d hired to manage his home in Connecticut. The man alleged that Fletcher made sexual advances toward him. A few years later, Fletcher was sued by another property manager, who claimed he had been fired after refusing Fletcher’s sexual advances. Both men reached confidential settlements with Fletcher.

Who else loves Ellen Pao as much as I do? “The case did make Pao a feminist talking point for a time. She notes that she earned praise from Hillary Clinton and Sheryl Sandberg for her brave stance.”

In some ways the most interesting part of the review is that proof by repetition succeeds. The author of the review is Naomi Schaefer Riley. Her Wikipedia page indicates no technical training and no experience ever working for a tech firm or even living in a part of the country with a significant tech industry presence. But she feels comfortable talking about the bad stuff that happens in Silicon Valley:

For all her faults, Pao is not wrong about the “brogrammer” atmosphere at these companies. … At many Silicon Valley firms, men really do act like they are in a college dorm. Their conversations and behavior are completely inappropriate for work,

How does Ms. Riley know that the 35-year-old programmers vesting-in-peace at Google are partying like fraternity brothers? What is the evidence that the typical Silicon Valley firm includes “conversations and behavior” that are more “inappropriate” than what might occur in a car dealership or an airline crew lounge?


10 thoughts on “Review of Ellen Pao’s book

  1. So in the end it was a yellow-brown-black triangle drama, with possible gayness? I’m beginning to feel underrepresented.

  2. Law degree is analog of PhD. In what sense ‘regression to the mean’ is used to describe someone with advanced degree who has parents with advanced degrees? Looks like same rank for all three. Regression to the mean assumes that after outstanding data point next data point moves clsoer to the mean. On provided example everyon is at the same rank. Money-wise it well could be move away from the mean. ‘Poor as an engineer and stupid like a college professor’

  3. A law degree requires about as much study, skill, and knowledge as a bachelor’s degree in engineering.

    I am curious about why there are no pictures of Fletcher and Pao together on the internet? Don’t they ever go out in public together? How is it that such a famous couple never gets photographed?

  4. I know some STEM MS from well known schools who went to law schools but were never able to pass bar exam. I laso know people who dropped off PhD programs. I also know PhDs who went to law school, passed bar exam and became patent lawyers. I know no lawyers who felt need to go to graduate school. I infer from this that PhD and law degree are of the same rank intellectually but law degree combined with bar exam is better paid.

  5. Obviously getting a PhD in engineering is irrational. Fortunately for Americans, it is uncommon (see ; shows the number of engineering PhDs earned in 2014. The report is produced by our government so most of it is devoted to sorting Americans by skin color, sex, and various other victim categories. But if you dig through it seems that about 35,000 engineering PhDs were earned by victims in all categories. By contrast roughly 43,832 law degrees were earned (see ).

    So Ms. Pao’s parents did something uncommon and Ms. Pao did something more common. Therefore this is regression to the mean (of common behavior).

  6. As an alumnus, any thoughts on MIT Technology Review? The latest issue features articles like “We Need Computers with Empathy”, “The Dangers of Tech-Bro AI” and “How to Root Out Hidden Biases in AI”

  7. Tom: Of course I mostly read it for the alumni news. The magazine is infected with the idea that “technology can solve all of our problems” and this is compounded by the idea that an enlightened government can optimize laws and regulations such that the right technology is applied. So I just try to keep in mind that I will likely be dead long before the Brave New World enabled by the innovations described in Tech Review comes to pass. And, of course, as an American born in 1963 and therefore a child of the Equal Opportunity days I am dismayed by the sorting of people by race, gender, and other victimhood categories (but at the same time I recognize that this is what Millennials demand!).

    actually raises an interesting issue if you follow the logic one or two steps beyond where the politically correct author and subject go. It would be thoughtcrime if someone were to think that women, on average, would prefer an indoor air-conditioned job with flexible hours to a higher-paying outdoor dangerous job with long hours. But what if an AI comes to this conclusion and runs ads accordingly? How do we punish artificial intelligences for their thoughtcrimes?

  8. “How do we punish artificial intelligences for their thoughtcrimes?”

    Sentence them to “life” in AP (Artificial Prison)? Then set an AI lawyer to work seeking their release – it could become another space heater like cryptocurrency mining, all these AI lawyers grinding out billable milliseconds.

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