The Strain of Reality: Reset by Ellen Pao

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“Ellen is always sensitive to her status. I actually think this is a personality flaw of hers.” So much for leaning in.

I first read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead after I saw her deliver the keynote at Dreamforce 2013. I was a freshman in college and a full-on Sandberg groupie by that time—so much so that I skipped all my classes on the promise of a free student ticket and traversed straight into the eye of a tech storm. I had watched her TED Talks, read her op-eds, and even wrote about her for my major application the following year. The act of leaning in felt almost idyllic—if I could just stand up for myself and work twice as hard, I could do just about anything and, more importantly, it’d be worth it. But if Sandberg painted a picture of a dreamy destination after a tough but worthwhile pursuit, Ellen Pao diplomatically pulls us back into the strain of reality in her book, Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change.

Throughout Reset, Pao tells the story of her grueling gender discrimination lawsuit against her previous employer, venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. She filed her suit back in 2012 as a junior partner at the firm, claiming workplace retaliation and bias. Pao alleges her colleague, Ajit Nazre, pushed her into a relationship and, when she broke up with him after finding out he was married, cut her out of important meetings and emails. After complaining about his behavior, she was given poor reviews, passed up for promotions, and told to keep quiet. Although Pao lost her case in 2015, she inspired many other women to pursue similar suits and talk about the rampant Silicon Valley sexism that was previously discussed in hushed tones.

Pao starts her story where anyone would when they’re trying to figure out what went wrong—the very, very beginning. I came into Reset passively, expecting to know how Pao’s origins manifested into her achievements. She had a childhood marked with the familiarity of Asian immigrant values. She barely mentions racial tension in her childhood; she felt (and was) virtually limitless. However, when Pao delivers the news of her father’s death, it comes as abruptly and jaggedly for us as it did for her in high school. There was nothing glorified or perfect about the way Pao handled her loss, because she wasn’t trying to make a point out of a painful event. She transitions from archetype to full-bodied human and continues to prove herself a hundred times over in the pages to come.

The 2016 presidential election normalized many societal monsters, one of which is this thinly veiled and far too rationalized form of sexism: “I believe in women, just not this one.” Pao received the Hillary Clinton treatment far before Clinton herself did during her tenure as “The Most Hated Person on the Internet”—a semi-joke from Pao’s daughter—which makes Reset the autobiographical, techie bootleg of Gregory Maguire’s Wicked. Having lived through the Discovery, Vilification, and Redemption of Ellen Pao in some of my most malleable years, I caught myself reading as if I was battling all the biases my past self carried from the case. In the book, Pao works through her feelings from start to finish and I was wholly entrenched, guiltily rewriting my prior impressions as I started absorbing her pain as my own.

Like Clinton, Pao’s humanity was recklessly stripped the moment she found herself a platform. It’s no surprise that sexism lacks originality, but both women are often prescribed the same adjectives—robotic, ingenuine, and emotionless. A woman is simultaneously too many things and not enough at all, forcing her vibrancy to smudge into an opaque blur. Pao drives home the point that she desperately wants the reader to take away: “Is it possible that I am really too ambitious while being too quiet while being too aggressive while being unlikeable?” As much I want to give Pao the benefit of knowing exactly what her book is about, I most appreciate the parts where she doesn’t seem to know her point at all—the parts where her streaks of color peek out from the confines of the thesis. These quick glances into her personhood overthrew any and all previous notions I had about Pao from a period when many Reddit-adjacent millennials inhaled vengeful memes and inflammatory thinkpieces about her.

For one thing, Pao is funny. It’s a hilarity that comes with a snarling bite and a dose of exhaustion—the kind of joking demeanor that can only result from years of having to deal with men making decisions over strip club dinners. For example, Pao throws in a line about her new coping mechanisms: “I once heard that fifteen minutes of meditation is equivalent to an hour of sleep. If it’s not, I don’t want to know.” Or, this quick quip about photoshopped pictures of her floating around reddit: “I marveled at how much time and talent were going into giving me horns. They added makeup on me, and I considered asking what shade the lipstick was; it looked kind of good.” Even this line about a pre-historic Silicon Valley made me chuckle: “Similarly, our coworkers might go to Burning Man, but they weren’t going with an army of sherpas like you see today. It was more casual and hippie-ish than calculated or hipster.” I’m convinced that if I spent an evening with Pao, her humor would be as true to herself as it is in her writing, and that leaves me with the warmest glow.

For someone who is constantly told she has sharp elbows, Pao delivers a rare and raw softness. It isn’t a forced vulnerability; if anything, it is the purest, most untouched vulnerability I’ve seen expressed in words: “I felt in that moment, that Kleiner had taken everything from me.” It felt as though, after 137 pages, Pao finally trusted the reader enough to show her open wounds in confidence. My heartbreak aligned with hers and the rest of the book radiated a halo of mutual respect from our eclipse.

Most of all, Pao’s gentle and curious descriptions of other women endlessly serve as fuel while suffering through the men in Reset. Her editorialized snapshots of the women in her life are almost always furnished with full-bodied stories of their upbringings. On founder and CEO Laura Gómez, Pao writes:

She was born in León Guanajuato, Mexico, and moved to Silicon Valley at age ten. For the next decade, she lived as a low-income, undocumented immigrant in the United States. She, her three siblings, and her parents shared a one-bedroom apartment in Redwood City. Her mom was a nanny and then a housekeeper in Palo Alto (including for Mark Zuckerberg and Marissa Mayer). Few in tech understood Laura’s hardship; these challenges both made her feel like an outsider and taught her the value of empathy, respect, and hard work.

Pao puts as much care into talking about other women’s perspectives as she does her own, creating a dialogue among people of various backgrounds that Lean In was often criticized for leaving out.

Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers spent much of its energy in the three years after Pao filed her case slandering her in the most wretched, stomach-turning ways. Many of us believed them then, but there’s no excuse to do so now. If Pao was once the Wicked Witch of the West Coast, she defied the gravity of her own lawsuit in Reset.

Ikya Kandula is a University of California, Berkeley graduate whose writing has appeared on Longreads, Equality for HER, and the Daily Californian. Find her on Twitter at @IkyaKandula. More from this author →