The Education of Ellen Pao

The chapters on the early years of her career trace auspicious beginnings at Princeton, and then at Harvard Law School and a job at a white-shoe law firm. Sure, there was the creep who would peer down women’s blouses, and the one who would brush up against women in the halls — not to mention the senior partner who would stand outside the doorway of a colleague’s office, “licking an ice cream cone while staring at her.” But Pao didn’t think much about those incidents at the time and held fast to the doctrine in which she was raised: “I had faith in the system, because it seemed to work.”

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At least it seemed to work for her — she who was accomplishing so much, climbing the ranks, eventually leaving a lucrative career in law in order to get an M.B.A. and pursue a lucrative career in Silicon Valley. A first marriage to an investment banker comes and goes with barely a ripple. It’s only when the memoir arrives at her tenure as a chief of staff at Kleiner Perkins that she fully sheds the voice of the innocent babe in the woods and allows some welcome cynicism and anger to come through. Her sentences get sharper; her jokes more cutting. She is scornful and funny on the managing partners’ deathly fear of flying commercial and their rich-people preparations for the apocalypse, much of which entails escaping to New Zealand. (“Maybe it’s the operational manager in me, but all I can think about are apocalypse logistics: What zombie pilot is going to fly all those planes, and which zombie air-traffic controller is going to help land them?”) Lonely, and at an age when she thought she would have started a family, she has a few sexual encounters with a colleague, whom she describes as charmless but persistent. She ends things when she discovers he’s not in fact getting divorced from his wife, and eventually, she says, the retaliation starts, when he gets promoted and begins wielding power over her, freezing her out of opportunities and giving her negative performance reviews.

The other men, she says, retreated to their boys’ club. “I heard often that women were just not funny or that we weren’t able to take a joke or didn’t smile enough,” she writes, recalling that her boss suggested she take a course in stand-up comedy in order “to get airtime.” Of course, as Pao acidly notes, “I didn’t find the men particularly hilarious.” They went on all-male retreats and arranged all-male dinners,…

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