The Innovator’s Gender Dilemma and Venture Rites of Passage


After 40 years as a professional woman who by many standards has “made it,” I am struck by the extent to which young and highly educated—even Ivy-league educated—employees are challenged by the ambiguities and realities of the contemporary competitive workplace.

Having always been exceptional, and having done what was expected of them, usually by their parents and teachers, they expect the workplace to be like a classroom wherein good performance based on reasonably clear expectations gets you an A+. People who have always been the “best” at meeting the standards of others often have more trouble navigating the realities of work, where standards, rules and the paths to success are ambiguous and in many cases downright uncertain. In a certain way, they lack an inner compass.

Industry today is fraught with risk and uncertainty. Amid the nebulous circumstances of workplace relationships, esprit de corps, informal rules, and trustworthiness, that inner compass can often trump rational planning and clear lines of authority. Very few “how to succeed in business” books prepare young people for the extent to which informal rules and networks actually make things work, as opposed to formal rules and lines of authority.

Innovation, entrepreneurship, and investing in risky ventures in a fiercely competitive global economy are not for the faint of heart. In fact, I would argue that the greater the risk and uncertainty, the more being perceived as being “on the team,” trustworthy, flexible, nimble, and even having a sense of humor, matter. And this is where I would argue that young people, and especially women, often get off course. Nobody prepares them for this reality—certainly not teachers or professors, and learning “how things really work here,” and penetrating the informal networks that dominate workplaces such as these is no easy task.

I had the experience of being called down by assertive men early in my career, of learning the importance of not only high performance but also trustworthiness and humor, just as my male contemporaries did. Not all women get these or recognize when they are receiving feedback that doesn’t fit with the supposed rules of the game. They can become isolated.

I am not sure this was Ellen Pao’s challenge, but it does appear, given other senior women in the firm and her sponsorship by John Doerr, that she may have missed the nuances of how to function effectively in the Kleiner Perkins environment as much as having been disadvantaged by her gender.

Mary Lindenstein Walshok is co-author with Abraham J. Shragge of "Invention & Re-Invention: The Evolution of San Diego’s Innovation Economy." She serves as UC San Diego’s associate vice chancellor of public programs, dean of UC San Diego Extension and is an adjunct professor of sociology. Follow @

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One response to “The Innovator’s Gender Dilemma and Venture Rites of Passage”

  1. Cindy says:

    Thank you Mary & agreed. Differentiating yourself as a woman must include playing well with others. Also considered a successful entrepreneur, I use my ‘femininity’ to advantage in the guy’s sandbox. I garner respect through my work product and results and allies because I don’t alienate them. It’s a win/win for all.