Job Security vs. Job Discrimination: A Fine Line

(A commentary on the Ellen Pao vs. Kleiner, Perkins lawsuit over discrimination)

I took an admittedly pragmatic approach to my situation as the only female executive, and the youngest one to boot. In my beginning years, women had finally started to crack, but not yet break the infamous “glass ceiling.” My bosses and co-workers were, for the most part, amenable to including a woman on their team but the areas of customer service and accounting were still done by “office girls.” I spent a lot of time and energy correcting their assumptions about what a woman could and would do for the organization—and then worked my butt off proving that I could do better than they ever imagined.

It’s hard to know if any disparagement was due to gender bias or simply lack of professional conduct. Most of the time, I rolled with the punches. After all, my male colleagues faced a different set of circumstances than their upbringing had prepared them for, too. It was up to all of us, as a management team, to strike the right balance of proper behavior and respect, and implement the new laws and policies fairly for all employees, regardless of gender, race, or ethnicity.

Despite working for male-dominated industries, I was encouraged to apply for any job I felt qualified for, and then judged by my achievements in my current position. I earned some promotions, but didn’t get them all, which is the norm. After all, many men lost in their bid for the same positions, too, and couldn’t fall back on gender discrimination as the reason. I more likely blamed my “failures” on standard office politics instead, which actually may be the essence of the Pao vs. Kleiner, Perkins case, not gender bias. Some people are simply better at impressing people with their interpersonal skills. Eventually, I trusted that my performance would speak louder than anything else would, and made damn sure I got outstanding results.

Women will face similar challenges to mine in terms of working in a male-dominated industry, yes, but that’s not unique to Silicon Valley. I don’t think there is gender bias among men per se, more a comfort level of doing business with known players in familiar ways. After all, most of the time they are interacting with other men. Women have to learn to do business with men as professionals, stand up to any inappropriate behavior before it drags them down, and learn the ropes of how to succeed in today’s technology world.

Silicon Valley has plenty of female CEO role models of hugely successful corporations—Marissa Mayer at Yahoo!, Meg Whitman at Hewlett-Packard and eBay; and Carly Fiorina at Hewlett-Packard as Whitman’s predecessor. There are also many women in the venture capital community and sitting on the boards of start-ups. So, even if women don’t pursue engineering degrees, rising through finance or marketing can be a valid career path. It might take a little longer, or follow a different trajectory but, ultimately, if a woman is great at her job, men in hiring positions will want to promote her to make the company a success.

However, it would be foolish to ignore the facts: men dominate the engineering fields; men are more often willing to risk founding their own company; men more often leave their families behind and immigrate to Silicon Valley. The presumption that a woman “should” be promoted based solely on her gender and not her ability to manage a complex, dynamic, and challenging environment is ridiculous. Only a very few of the ambitious—men or women—make it to the upper executive ranks, and it takes dedication to do so.

Having what amounts to quotas, or using lawsuits as blackmail, actually might make it more difficult for women. Out of fear of a risk of future liability costs of the magnitude of the Kleiner, Perkins case, employers will look for every reason NOT to hire a woman (or a minority) rather than work through the issue for long-term progress across the board. Real change happens slowly, especially when dealing with human perceptions, unlike wondrously fast technology life cycles.

There has been a lot of progress by individual women paving the way in Silicon Valley for the next generation. We should applaud that fact and replicate the results, not destroy the private opportunities through lawsuits or regulatory oversight.

I believe in win-win, not win-lose, so I saw no reason to confront an individual manager about his bias unless it got in my way. When I perceived that it blocked me from advancing, I went around—twice—by finding another job from someone who already respected my results and made a place for me in his company. The first time, I went directly to the CEO and advised him of the inappropriate action. I had no time or interest to play a game of legal threats based on my perceptions of gender bias. After all, perhaps I was just as biased. As a novelist, getting into the heads of both sides in order to weave my stories, I now have a greater appreciation for how much one perspective can differ from another, based merely on whose point of view is speaking at a particular time in my book.

In this modern-day Gold Rush that is Silicon Valley, making money seems so easy. But to casual observers following just this one case, they may overlook the time and effort it takes on the part of venture capitalists and entrepreneurs to marshal resources and make all this wonderful technology work. For too many, including attorneys (sorry, Maureen), the prize is grabbing an unearned piece of the pie by claiming discrimination or unfairness. Frankly, most people here are too busy trying to get results, and fast. They really don’t care who gets them, as long as they’re gotten—regardless of gender or race. Holding a corporation hostage for the act of possibly one bad actor doesn’t make sense to me.

That being said, I do think the “hot” companies run by very young CEOs would benefit from simple lessons in what constitutes professional behavior for all employees. Years ago, manners and respect were the norm in the workplace. Part of a manager’s job was to guide subordinates in correct behavior. Instead, disdain for anyone unlike oneself has become all too common and, therefore, not challenged, which might lead to ongoing perceptions of bias and discrimination. Great leadership and wisdom comes with years of experience, not a successful Wall Street IPO.

(This article originally appeared on Balcony 7 Media & Publishing’s SaucyJaw.com)

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