Ball-busters who "kill the buzz": Why the Ellen Pao case is a master class in sexism disguised as "culture fit"

A gender discrimination suit against a venture capital firm reveals the slippery operations of daily sexism

Published March 12, 2015 8:35PM (EDT)

Ellen Pao          (Reuters/Robert Galbraith)
Ellen Pao (Reuters/Robert Galbraith)

For a hot second on Thursday there was some talk about Hillary Clinton having horns on the cover of Time magazine. In the image, Clinton is silhouetted, face cast downward with the negative space in the “m” in the Time logo framing her head so that, well, she looks a little like the devil wearing a pantsuit. Time responded by creating a list of 34 other examples of its cover figures with devil horns, noting that, "Any resemblance to cats, bats or devil horns is entirely coincidental."

The non-scandal quickly disappeared, but I thought of Clinton and this cycle of parsing what’s sexist about how the media covers her or represents her image versus when it’s fair criticism (or, more often than not, when it’s a combination of both) while reading the updates coming out of Re/code’s excellent liveblog on the Ellen Pao case.

For those catching up, Ellen Pao is the interim CEO of Reddit, but was once a junior partner at a venture capital firm called Kleiner Perkins. Pao alleged in a gender discrimination suit that she was targeted at the firm and denied promotions and other opportunities because she was a woman in a male-dominated workplace.

There has been testimony about all-male ski trips and dinners, a partner who said having women around can “kill the buzz,” a boss who called Pao his “surrogate daughter,” some awkward and unwelcome conversations about porn, books of erotic poetry given as gifts. The impression you’re left after reading through the trial notes is that Kleiner Perkins, like the rest of Silicon Valley, is a very bro-centered place that hasn't done much to change its comically masculine culture.

Pao’s account of the firm is plenty damning, but the statistics about women in her field are just as bad without the awful details. When it comes to women in leadership positions, venture capital makes Congress look like a feminist utopia. Just four percent of senior investing partners in the industry are women. (Given the sea of dudes in senior positions, Kleiner Perkins seems downright progressive with two women among its 10 senior partners.)

In its defense against the charge of sex discrimination and fostering a culture of sexist bullshittery, Kleiner Perkins said that Pao just wasn’t a good fit for the firm or venture capital in general. According to the firm, she lacked “the ability to lead others, build consensus and be a team player.” And over the last few days of cross-examination, Kleiner Perkins’ lawyer has argued, often forcefully, that Pao was pretty much a jerk. That she was hostile, even to other women. That she acted “entitled” and complained too much. (The firm's partner John Doerr told an investigator that Pao had a "female chip on her shoulder.")

Now here’s the thing that makes all of this so fascinating and generally maddening, both about the Pao case and the subtle operations of structural sexism in general. Both of these things can be true at the same time! Ellen Pao could have been a pushy, entitled jerk who was still discriminated against and excluded because of her gender. Her colleagues may have genuinely found her hard to work with, but this sense that she’s “difficult” or "not a good fit" could still be sexist ideas about how women are supposed to behave.

There is no question that venture capital is a sexist industry. The numbers speak for themselves. A shocking 96 percent of senior investing partners in the industry are guys. If you don’t believe that’s sexism at work, if you don't believe the recruitment pools aren't shaped by sexist ideas about "culture fit" and "killing the buzz," then you believe that women are just uniquely ill-suited to investing. That would happen to make you sexist.

So in one way, Pao’s complaint is almost beside the point. Of course Kleiner Perkins was a hostile environment for a woman who wanted to work in a senior investing capacity instead of, say, operations or press. Likewise, “the ability to lead others, build consensus and be a team player” as defined by Kleiner Perkins, and in many other elite corporate spaces, of course means to lead in the way that is most traditionally associated with white men’s leadership.

When women lean in, as they are so often instructed, they are generally punished for it. There are no shortages of gross examples of what this looks like in practice. Men get shit done, women are bossy. Men are no-nonsense, women are bitches. I have little doubt that, pretty much regardless of how Pao conducted herself during her time at Kleiner Perkins, she wasn't seen as a good fit because the model for a successful visionary in her industry -- the kind of guy venture capitalists chase -- is, as Doerr once put it, "white, male nerds who’ve dropped out of Harvard or Stanford."

For any number of women reading right now, there may be a familiar ring to this kind of talk about fit. It’s crazy-making in large part because this kind of discrimination is a slippery little fish to hold in your hands. You think you see it, but you're never sure. You want to bring it up, but you don't want to make anyone uncomfortable or seem too delicate. And in order to have it taken seriously, people need a vocabulary that includes words like male privilege and structural sexism, and people seriously hate acknowledging those things exist.

The jury in this case will have its hands full trying to parse through the kinds of discrimination that we know are real but often pretend otherwise. But the question before them is vitally important, and instructive beyond the elite world of Silicon Valley: Can a woman be a pushy, hostile jerk and still be the victim of sexist discrimination? Pao may very well lose her lawsuit for any number of reasons, but the answer to that question is clear. The case is bigger than one woman, and the numbers don't lie. There are ball-busters, pushy broads, women with secret devil horns out there rubbing people the wrong way and making enemies -- and the system gets one over on them, too. Sexism, in that way, doesn't discriminate.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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Ellen Pao Gender Discrimination Hillary Clinton Lawsuit Sexism Time Magazine