Why did Ellen Pao lose her landmark case? – A Cultural Perspective

Vogue, the flagship fashion magazine in the world, is not only recognized as an authority on style, but also is known for its coverage on subjects such as literature, architecture, photography, theatre and even political figures.  Its trademark, unabashedly forward thinking flair is why I am a subscriber.  And the month of May means only one thing: the Met Gala.  This year, the theme was China and its influence on fashion.  Therefore, I was anxious to read the May issue’s reporting on “China: Through the Looking Glass,” an exhibition that according to the Metropolitan Museum’s web site, “explores the impact of Chinese aesthetics on Western fashion and how China has fueled the fashionable imagination for centuries.” I figured that if I liked what I read, I might add a stop at the exhibit to my to-do activities when I visit New York in the next few months.

My excitement vanished as I flipped through the pages.  The outfits designed by the houses of Jean Paul Gaultier, Chanel and Valentino were superficial and lackluster, and many so-called “traditional Chinese dresses” I discovered at the boutiques in Shanghai’s former French concession, at a fraction of what these designer gowns cost, are far more flattering and spectacular.  Then, the caption on one of the featured photos caught my eyes: “Western pop culture still often portrays Asian women as having mysterious power of sexual mastery.”  I sat back thinking I might have read it wrong, so I focused, read it again, and burst into laughter.  Mysterious power of sexual mastery? Really?

McQueen 2006 Valentino 1968 Chanel 1996 Chanel 1984 Saint Laurent 2004With Pianist

Shortly after though, anxiety and inevitably, a sense of inadequacy set in as I started to wonder how many Western men we have collectively let down.  I began to recall in the movie “The King’s Speech,” when the Duke of York and future King George VI asks his wife what hold Mrs. Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee, has on his brother Prince of Edward, she sneers: “Apparently she has certain… skills, which she learned in an establishment in Shanghai.” Add to the list:  Nancy Kwan’s turn as the sultry and tragic Suzie Wong, and the factually baseless ménage à trois scene that was wildly ridiculed by Chinese historians and audience alike in “The Last Emperor”.

Last Emperor Suzie Wong Mrs Simpson

Goldie Hawn once famously declares that there are only three ages for women in Hollywood; “Babe”, “District Attorney”, and “Driving Ms. Daisy.”  Well, I would argue that there were even fewer categories of Asian women perceived by and portrayed in our culture: “kitten” and “dragon lady.”

Ms. Ellen Pao, who holds an engineering degree from Princeton, and an MBA and JD from Harvard, and with stints including a former junior partner at a prestigious venture capitalist firm in the Silicon Valley and the interim CEO at Reddit, has difficulty fitting in either category.  Wearing flowing long black hair, dark glasses and a slightly shy smile, she looks more like a graduate student than a brilliant corporate leader or for that matter, a self-described victim of gender and racial discrimination and sexual harassment.  Usually, women who claim to have been subjected to discrimination, harassment or unlawful retaliation are considered angry, weak and down on their luck.  Yet, Ms. Pao was constantly photographed in her suits looking polished and calm during her trial.  With her pedigree and accomplishments, she is too upper echelon to be considered a kitten; yet, judging from her frail frame and youthful look, she does not fit the traditional, overbearing “dragon lady” mode either.

Lawsuit Ellen Pao

When I first read Ms. Pao’s complaint, it was as if she were describing one of the firms I worked for.  There were very few women in the company to begin with; even fewer with advanced degrees.  Despite my extensive education and experience in the field, I was reduced to an administrative clerk, performing menial tasks.  I thought about speaking up a few times, and decided against it because I did not want to be labelled as a “whiner” or “trouble maker.”  I gave up completely after a few of the more outspoken colleagues were terminated.  One of my bosses once informed me that he and his family were going on a vacation the following week, and told me not to call him at 2 am.  I left his office feeling disgusted, and I knew better not to complain to Human Resources, because he was in charge of Human Resources!  Another Chinese female co-worker with a Ph. D. confided in me her anguish at how his male colleagues constantly belittled and bullied her, and how she had to seek medical treatment for stress-induced insomnia.

While ultimately the burden was on Ms. Pao and her legal team to convince the jury that her termination resulted from retaliation after she filed her discrimination and harassment suit against her former employer, and while I could empathize with Ms. Pao what it’s like to be ignored, marginalized or passed over for an important assignment or promotion – since there is really no such thing as “jury of your peers” in my opinion considering Ms’ Pao’s academic and professional background even in a place like the Silicon Valley where supposedly the best and brightest converge – jurors had a tough time sensing Ms. Pao as a victim, based on her looks, the way she carries herself, and her stellar credentials.  As a result, they could not and did not rule in her favor.

About two months after Ms. Pao lost her case, the Business Section of Los Angeles Times publishes an article called “Asian American face glass ceiling at tech companies,” and it points out: In a separate study published last year by UC Hastings College of the Law titled “Double Jeopardy,” the authors examined gender bias against women of color in science.” 

The study found that on top of the biases women already face in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, Asian women experience the double whammy of being negatively stereotyped and facing workplace pressures to fulfill traditionally feminine roles.

“All women walk this tightrope,” said Joan C. Williams, a professor at UC Hastings. “Asian women experience sharply higher levels of pressure to behave in feminine ways, and they experience higher levels of pushback if they don’t.”

This is an experience Ms. Pao, my co-worker and I can all attest to.  As long as our culture, including a premier magazine like Vogue, continues to perpetrate ludicrous stereotypes and put us in a certain “box,” our struggle to be taken seriously will go on.  And this is no laughing matter.


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