As I See It: Playing In The Minefield
April 6, 2015 Victor Rozek
With some reluctance, I take a deep breath and begin to tiptoe into the minefield. There are topics so polarizing that no matter what opinions you express, or how benignly you express them, they are bound to spawn potent disagreement. And with the advent of social media, taking a stand on anything even slightly controversial guarantees that remote hatred will roll in with tidal inevitability.
Topics like discrimination, white privilege, women, minorities, economic equity, and male domination, potentially explosive in their own right, are made incendiary when they are flogged in the pursuit of money.
Which is why Ellen Pao’s recent lawsuit against former employer Kleiner Perkins was instantly polarizing. Challenging the cozy male-dominated Silicon Valley culture is high-stakes emotional stuff, and the irony of the haves and have-mores pointing manicured fingers at each other was largely lost. Was Pao a victim of Silicon Valley’s systemic ills, or an opportunistic malcontent? Was she held back by reason of gender bias, or performance bias? Is it by accident or design that 94 percent of partners in the venture capital industry are male?
The answers to those questions depend in large part on the sex and status of the responder. From the perspective of the average wage earner, why was a woman who made over $500,000 last year suing her employer? Wouldn’t we all like to be subjected to such discrimination? From the perspective of women who have rubbed a bald spot on their heads from repeatedly bumping up against the silicon ceiling, Pao could have made fivefold that amount as a senior partner if only she sported different genitalia.
Ultimately, whether she deserved to be a senior partner and was indeed a victim of gender discrimination became an issue for a jury to decide. As we now know, Pao lost her lawsuit, and I have no way to determine whether the verdict was just. But I do know that the psychology of privilege and the psychology of victimhood are subtle and nuanced, and that many of the beliefs associated with them operate on an unconscious level.
Motivation and behavior are like an iceberg. Behavior is the fraction of the iceberg we see above the waterline; motivation lies unseen beneath. Which is why it is more interesting to speculate about motivation.
The Psychology Of Power
People with wealth and power are illustrative of Einstein’s dictum that fish will be the last to discover water. Once wealth and power become your native environment, it’s easy to conclude that privilege is your natural state. Opportunities flow not purely from the content of your character, but from the content of your wallet. Position, power, and influence over outcomes trump performance alone.
Privilege has one overriding objective: its continued dominion. By definition, privilege ceases being privilege if everyone is treated equally. One cannot enjoy the trappings of superiority if they are no longer exclusive. If everyone could own a Tesla it would be no more enviable than owning a Chevy. So whether consciously or subconsciously, equality becomes the enemy of the privileged. Decisions that determine salary, promotions, partnerships, will–on some level–always be threatening to the decision makers. More for you means less for me. More of you means less advantage for me.
Power is not freely shared. Young up-and-comers will threaten to displace the generation moving toward retirement. Women will threaten men. Minorities will threaten an aging power structure that understands discrimination is no longer fashionable and its exercise must therefore become less obvious.
There is a bond shard by those who look down upon and disparage classes of people. It props up the illusion of their own superiority, while justifying decisions that impede the progress of the disparaged. The prevailing attitude of privilege, although seldom publicly articulated (except by Mitt Romney), is: “It’s us, and the rest don’t matter.”
The Psychology Of The Oppressed
The trouble with identifying yourself as a “minority” is that the word has evolved to include “injured party” status. The label comes with a history of inequity. Amongst themselves, minorities will reinforce the notion–whether real or imaginary–that the playing field is not level and will cultivate an “us against them” mentality. To be accepted as a fellow victim, individuals must share a set of prescribed beliefs–among them the conviction that the established order is conspiring against them.
Embracing victimhood makes it easy to overlook personal flaws and deficiencies and blame failures on bias or discrimination. If for no other reason, it’s a strategy that works: it’s nearly impossible to fire someone once they have filed a discrimination complaint.
The culture in which one was raised may also delineate the degree of workplace success, particularly in highly aggressive and competitive arenas. In Asian cultures, for example (Pao is the daughter of Chinese immigrants), children are taught to defer to, rather than challenge authority. By her own admission she sees herself an “an introvert, not a self promoter.” But good manners aren’t always an asset.
It’s impossible to know whether any of these things were in play leading up to and during the trial. I would hope not, but I suspect they were. Still, as is true with most disputes, no single party has a monopoly on truth. The sheer paucity of women in top management and partnership positions supports Pao’s complaint. When women are outnumbered 94 percent to 6, it’s hard not to consider them as little more than an afterthought. The cream of Silicon Valley walk the world with the swagger of elite athletes. And as we’ve learned from numerous incidents of athletes abusing women–when the women seek redress they find out just how little they really matter.
On the other hand, Pao may have learned her legal strategy from her husband, Buddy Fletcher, an entrepreneur who once sued Kidder Peabody for racial discrimination. The charge was dismissed, but he later received $1.26 million in an arbitrated settlement. Fletcher went on to become a hedge fund manager, drove the fund into bankruptcy and is now being sued for civil fraud. History has a way of repeating itself.
If there is a single “truth” that emerged from Ellen Pao v Kleiner Perkins it’s that the status quo may be bruised, but it is still standing. Nothing really changed.
In the aftermath of the verdict, a group of tech women purchased a full-page ad in the Palo Alto Daily Post. It featured two words that expressed the sentiments of many women who have felt marginalized in Silicon Valley, and may prove to be the only satisfaction Pao will collect for her reform efforts.
The ad simply said: Thanks Ellen.