Ellen Pao does not want to be telling her life story.
Paradoxically, this message comes across pretty clearly in her new memoir, Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change. Pao, made famous (or infamous) in 2015 by her high-profile gender-discrimination lawsuit against the venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins, would have been far, far happier if the modern economy really were the way she was raised to believe: a meritocracy. That would have allowed her to accomplish all of the world-changing things she felt capable of doing. Then, perhaps, she could have written a book about how to succeed in technology.
Instead, thanks to the world as it is, she was ostracized, harassed, kept down, and eventually pushed out. And so, in another sense, she is eager to tell her story: She seems to have felt obligated to speak out, first via her lawsuit and now through a book about it. She’s also since founded a nonprofit dedicated to increasing diversity in tech.
Pao’s lawsuit has been widely credited with sparking a conversation around the fact that women are still outnumbered in the tech industry, particularly the higher they climb up the ranks. She herself references this “Pao effect.” She promotes her book as a continuation of that conversation and as a call to arms to enhance diversity in the industry.
But in the actual telling of her tale, she winds up, in many ways, working against her own cause. Her experience does serve as one representative example of the discrimination that young women face in a variety of workplaces. And yet, almost without trying, she highlights the resources and privilege it took to bring a lawsuit—a lawsuit she still lost, calling into question whether anyone else would dare to do the same thing. Worse, she writes about the endless tally of offenses she suffered during her career as though they were minor. The productive potential of a book like Pao’s lies in inspiring people to change. Instead, Reset acts more like a wet blanket, snuffing out the passion and urgency to take bold action.
Pao’s story is, at its heart, a sort of parable about what many young women face today as they try to succeed in the workplace. “I grew up firmly believing the world was a meritocracy,” Pao writes at the beginning of her book. She is happiest, she repeats over and over and over again, when she is working hard and following the rules and letting the results speak for themselves. “I’ve always believed in keeping my head down and forging ahead. I work hard. I do my best,” she declares.