the national interest

Do Sexual Harrassment Suits Harm Women?

Amity Horror. Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Amity Shlaes, a Bloomberg View pundit best known for mounting incoherent defenses of right-wing economic dogma — for instance, cutting taxes on the rich produces more revenue, we should fear rampant inflation because inflation is so low, and Franklin Roosevelt prolonged the Great Depression — today ventures forth into the field of gender discrimination theory. In the classic style of her so-crazy-it’s-actually-crazy brand of right-wing counterintuition, Shlaes asserts that sexual harassment lawsuits keep women from gaining jobs in venture capital. (Yes, you read that correctly: It’s the sexual harassment lawsuits, not the sexual harassment itself, that stands in the way of female advancement.)

The case that piqued Shlaes’s interest into this perverse dynamic is a sexual harassment lawsuit by Ellen Pao against the firm Kleiner Perkins.

Pao’s lawsuit, argues Shlaes, “may work against women who want to be entrepreneurs.” Why? Because the best venture capital firms have “wild” offices. They’ll respond to the lawsuit by becoming boring and bureaucratic. And they’ll stop hiring people who they fear will sue them:

Human-resources specialists aren’t idiots. They see how much Pao, still merely alleging, is costing a firm such as Kleiner Perkins: time, image and distraction from its main work, finding value. Other businesses will work harder to avoid a litigious hire. They will scour candidates’ resumes for similarities to Pao’s.

What does it mean that firms will stop hiring candidates with résumés that have “similarities to Pao’s”? Does it mean they’ll stop hiring women, or perhaps young and attractive women, for fear they’ll sue? If Shlaes doesn’t mean that — and the one constant of her writing style is that it’s so very difficult to tell just what she means — then it has no relevance to her premise that the lawsuit “may work against women who want to be entrepreneurs.”

It is certainly plausible that the threat of sexual harassment lawsuits could cause some firms to react in ways that could harm women, and therefore that frivolous suits have some cost for women in the V.C. field. On the other hand, it’s also true that a well-grounded lawsuit over blatant discrimination would help women in the field, by, you know, discouraging firms from permitting blatant sex discrimination.

Nowhere in Shlaes’s column does she even consider the possibility of such a dynamic. But the last generation has seen a dramatic increase in career opportunities for women alongside dramatically increased legal sanctions against sexual harassment. Isn’t it at least plausible to wonder if the two trends might be working in tandem, as opposed to against each other?

The craziest thing about Shlaes’s argument is that she makes no judgment about the merits of Pao’s lawsuit. She does not even summarize the allegations. According to the suit, the behavior Pao suffered is pretty bad. A partner at the firm whom Pao spurned engaged in “a consistent pattern of retaliation against her,” excluding her from key meetings and e-mail loops. Also, a senior partner, allegedly, rather creepily approached her:

For Valentine’s Day 2007 Senior Partner Randy Komisar came into [Pao’s] office and gave her a book entitled ‘The Book of Longing’ by Leonard Cohen, inscribed with a handwritten note from Mr. Komisar to Plaintiff. The book contains many sexual drawings and poems with strong sexual content. At about the same time, Mr. Komisar asked [Pao] out to a Saturday night dinner, telling Plaintiff that his wife would be out of town.”

Now, maybe all this is exaggerated or even false. But the thing is, Shlaes does not care. She is not arguing against false or overly sensitive sexual harassment lawsuits. She’s arguing against lawsuits against men who pressure women for sex, and then intentionally harm their careers when they refuse. Which is to say, she is asserting that virtually any sexual harassment suit is bad for women.

But of course, her solution is hardly novel. Just like we have tried the laissez-faire response to massive recessions, we have also had many, many decades of experimenting with a workplace legal regime in which companies did not have to fear sexual harassment lawsuits. It was not, in fact, a triumph for female career advancement.

Do Sexual Harrassment Suits Harm Women?