3 Lessons Every Woman Needs to Learn From the Ellen Pao Trial
For the past six weeks, Silicon Valley has been abuzz over the Pao v. Kleiner Perkins gender discrimination lawsuit. Allegations have flown. Juicy stories of workplace gossip and affairs have emerged. And Twitter has been as wrapped up in the day-to-day happenings as the jurors.
To back up, former Kleiner Perkins junior partner Ellen Pao (now the current Reddit interim CEO), took her old employer to court for gender discrimination because she missed out on a few promotions—and lost on all four counts for which she filed. Despite the clear abundance of male leadership in the burgeoning tech industry, Kleiner Perkins’ defense presented Pao in an unflattering light, as somewhat of a disgruntled employee whose on-the-job performance wasn’t as spot-on as she alleged. Although the jury was initially split on the verdict about the grounds of her firing, it eventually ruled in Kleiner Perkins’ favor.
However, even though Pao lost, she still created an uproar of conversation about how women should be treated in the workplace—especially in the tech industry, which may now just need an image overhaul. Here are three reasons this trial was still important for women, despite the formal “loss.”
Although tech is consumed by all (you know we’re all guilty of wasting hours on Facebook), the innovators are nearly all men—and as a sex, women are actually losing ground. Just six percent of venture capitalists are women, according to recent Babson College research, down from 10 percent in 1999. Additionally, 79 percent of firms have never even had a woman on the board of a portfolio company. This number was brought up in the trial, and ultimately underlines a real need for more women to take up top-level positions out west.
Pao may have lost the case on all counts, but Kleiner Perkins suffered a real PR crisis after its dirty laundry was aired in that courtroom. During the trial, testimonies included what senior partners at the firm reportedly said, such as that Pao “had a female chip on her shoulder” and would “kill the buzz” at mostly-male industry events. Even the most subtle of slights are impactful and create a bias; Pao was never promoted to the position she was promised, an investing role at the firm.
“This case sends a powerful signal to Silicon Valley in general and the venture capital industry in particular,” Stanford law professor Deborah Rhode told The New York Times. “Defendants who win in court sometimes lose in the world outside it.” But that can also not be the case, provided that the tech industry can turn the post-verdict buzz into actionable change. With the details that emerged, hopefully other companies may think twice about who they’re promoting and why that person is best for the job—man or woman.
Since the case started approximately six weeks ago, other women have come forward with gender-bias suits of their own, notably at social networks Facebook and Twitter. Freada Kapor Klein, who runs an investment company, believes that the Pao trial has literally changed the way people are talking about gender bias in Silicon Valley—and showed companies they have to take a hard look at their ways. “Many of the behaviors and practices being alleged in this case are reminiscent of Wall Street in the ’90s,” Klein said. “While tech is on the cutting edge in product design and changing many aspects of our lives, it’s on the trailing edge of creating welcoming work environments.” And that’s something that has to change.
Perhaps Pao summed it up best in her post-trial press conference: “If I’ve helped to level the playing field for women and minorities in venture capital, then the battle was worth it,” she said. Consensus: Pao has now set the precedent, despite the loss on paper.