On March 27, 2015, after a month-long trial and two-day deliberation, a 12-person jury found the Kleiner Perkins Caufield-Byer venture-capital firm not guilty on four accounts of gender discrimination and workplace retaliation against Ellen Pao, a former junior partner with Kleiner Perkins. Even though Pao was not able to convince the jury, this is still a landmark case because it shined a very bright spotlight on the practices of some Silicon Valley firms that previously went unquestioned.
Kleiner Perkins has been described as “one of the world’s most prestigious venture capital firms.” This trial, however, portrayed them largely as a males-only elite club. Regardless of the extent to which they are or are not, managing partner Ted Schlien at Kleiner Perkins made a very telling statement during the trial: “I really don’t think it was a very big deal to us who sits at a table or who does not.” This statement was in response to Pao’s complaint that her and another female colleague were made to sit at the back during a meeting.
It also references Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In campaign, which encouraged women to speak up and speak out against gender bias, and take an active role in their careers. When Schlien makes a statement like this, with no apology issued afterward, it really makes you question all of Kleiner Perkin’s statements touting diversity and inclusion of women in their workforce.
However, Ellen Pao is not fading back into the shadows of Silicon Valley after her loss in court. She is now the interim CEO of Reddit, and an active-Twitter user, using Twitter to broadcast her feelings after the trial.
It is also important to note the various facets of Pao’s identity: she holds a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from Princeton, a law degree from Harvard, and an MBA from Harvard Business School. She is also both a woman and a person of color who held a position of high rank while employed with Kleiner Perkins.
As more and more Silicon Valley giants like Google and Yahoo reveal that barely a third of their staff is female, this case highlights the reason we need to look more in-depth at opportunities and roadblocks for promotion for women and gender bias in the workplace.
Ellen Pao brought the suit against Kleiner Perkins so she could tell her story on the largest platform possible, and level the playing field for women and minorities in the sector of venture capital. Despite being mentored by John Doerr, a largely influential senior partner within Kleiner, Pao testified to an office culture that promoted sexism and the pervasiveness of inappropriate behavior from her male colleagues.
Doerr himself is quoted as saying to other Kleiner partners: “I really hope Ellen stays. I’d be disappointed if there are parts of our culture or workplace that cause her to leave.” Here, he is clearly acknowledging that there is a problem with both “Kleiner culture” and the workplace. However, it is important to note that Doerr is not actually apologizing for the culture, or suggesting any changes to it. Pao is the one who must adapt to it or leave, but the culture is permanent.
The main tenet of Pao’s lawsuit was gender discrimination. She described humiliation and confusion at being passed over for promotions while seeing male colleagues with similar reviews and credentials getting promoted. After she ended a short, consensual relationship with a male colleague—Ajit Nazre—at Kleiner Perkins, she testified to his unprofessional behavior, which included frequently excluding her from business-related group discussions and emails. When she appealed to senior partners within the company, her concerns fell largely on deaf ears. Pao also requested clearer human-resources policies and trainings for staff. Nothing was done.
Nazre was eventually quietly let go, but for a different reason. Trae Vassallo, another former junior partner at the firm, testified to receiving unsolicited sexual advances from Nazre while she was employed with Kleiner Perkins. When she took her concerns to senior partner Ray Lane, he allegedly told her, “You should be flattered.” This insensitive response, which Lane denies ever making, just points to a strong need for adequate training for Kleiner Perkins staff, as well as a lesson on what is correct and compassionate to say to a victim, and what is not.
In addition to an uncomfortable, male-dominated office environment, Pao also alleged blatant exclusion from high-profile events, such as a dinner with then-Vice President Al Gore. She claims that her non-invite stemmed from a comment from Chi-Hua Chien, who stated, “Women are a buzz kill.”
This is a little more difficult to prove, since Chien denies having ever said this and cites other factors for the exclusion. However, Chien and Pao were both similarly described in reviews as being “territorial, difficult, harsh and demanding credit,” but Chien was promoted and Pao was not.
Maybe Pao was a chronic complainer, entitled, and hard to work with, like the Kleiner Perkins lawyers claimed. Or maybe she was equally a professional who earned her spot in the firm through hard work and careful observation. Mudslinging is prevalent in many trials and it was also present here. However, even though Kleiner Perkins won this case, this trial was expensive, portrayed them in a negative light, and revealed that some of their practices need oversight.
Before this, personal experiences with gender bias in large, seemingly untouchable companies were virtually unheard of; however, Pao’s case might have opened up the rusted floodgates. Indeed, two cases have already been filed against Twitter and Facebook. Maybe this has served as the “wake-up call” for Silicon Valley: companies are more likely to take a second look at their own practices rather than suffer a prolonged lawsuit in court.
Pao v. Kleiner also inspired the hashtag #ThankYouEllenPao, where Twitter users thanked her for having the courage to tell her story, which parallels their own. Lawyers say 95% of these types of cases are resolved in private, so #ThankYouEllenPao for bringing this issue to the forefront. We’ll see what happens next.
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