A Primer on the Ellen Pao Trial

A Primer on the Ellen Pao Trial


The Spotlight on Silicon Valley Was Inevitable

While the Pao lawsuit certainly was prominent in press reports such as Newsweek’s controversial cover story: What Silicon Valley Thinks of Women, it was by no means the only example cited.  The Newsweek piece and Emily Bazelon’s New York Time’s piece on What’s Really at Stake in Ellen Pao’s Kleiner Perkins Lawsuit highlighted a number of other prominent examples of discrimination and harassment including:

  • Tinder where  co-founder Whitney Wolfe’s title was yanked since having a woman on a board “makes the company seem like a joke;”
  • CMEA Capital where a partner trapped female employees in his office; and
  • GitHub where founder Tom Preston-Warner was forced to resign after a female developer (Julie Ann Horvath) said an engineer there hijacked her work after she refused to sleep with him.
Even before the trial, programmer and blogger Ashe Drdyen asks the question:
Should we be encouraging women to get into the pipeline when we know the pipeline leads to a sewage treatment plant?


The Parties

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The Allegations

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The jurors sided with Kleiner Perkins based on an assessment of the evaluations of Pao and her male counterparts which faulted Pao for her brashness. Despite siding with the firm, one juror indicated that it was not a good work environment and too much like “the Wild, Wild West.”

A BART Manager on the jury who sided with Pao noted that the men who had the same “character flaws” as Pao got promoted.


The Aftermath

The reactions to the verdict have been to view this as a call to action, a game changing case that will empower future women and a setback for women.  While the case was pending harassment suits were filed against both Facebook and Twitter.

The Problem Is Real

“Verdict aside, we have a deep gender discrimination problem in tech. Thx to @ekp for reminding us.”
Chris Sacca, an angel investor who has backed Twitter, Uber and Instagram and others. (Link)

Game Changer/ Women Are Empowered

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But in the end, it still has blown wide open these subtle biases that women deal with all the time in the workplace and more so within the Valley. So it still has meant something. It’s still been this game changer.

Davey Alba, Wired (Link)

When you have a voice, it’s your responsibility to use it,.  After coming out with my experience, I’ve seen a lot more of the same. I think women are becoming less afraid and more empowered to speak their truth. . . . I’m positive [the Pao] trial will have a huge impact on the way Silicon Valley operates. It becomes more risky for companies to foster or allow misogynistic behavior to be pervasive in their company culture and their leadership.
Julie Ann Horvath – GitHub harassment victim (Link)





The Verdict is a Set Back



Kleiner Perkins built its case around “culture fit” — a jargony shorthand for whether an employee reflects a company’s values.  But culture fit can also function as a thinly veiled cover for bias.

Kristen V. Brown, San Francisco Chronicle (Link)

But let’s not delude ourselves: Pao’s loss is an insult to every woman in Silicon Valley. Not because she had a strong case—she didn’t—but because of how she lost it. The trial, while unique and peculiar, began to feel universal to many working women in Silicon Valley. We could see ourselves in Pao; we recognized the subtle slights from her mostly male coworkers; we understood intuitively what the defense’s ad hominem attacks on her personal life represented.

Pao’s suit sparked a “conversation” only because it offered fresh hunks of tabloid meat for journalists to chew on: a scorned woman, a powerful employer, a scandalous affair, a wealth of double-crossing and deceit. This was hot stuff. Now that it’s over, it’s back to business as usual: stat-filled “women in tech” stories that are as dire in their prognoses as they are toothless in their prescriptions for change. That makes me angry—I think it should make everyone angry.

. . . And while there aren’t any neat lessons to draw from what happened in that stuffy sixth-floor courtroom, the trial did expose truths about the self-image of venture capital firms. They see themselves as untouchable mavericks—renegade brothers-in-arms who should not be shackled by intrusive HR policies or petty rules about what’s OK to talk about at work. Pao, the venture capitalists implied, should have been grateful that she’d been invited in at all.

. . . Leaving the Battery, a tech-beloved private social club, one morning after the trial, I ran into one of the highest-profile angel investors in the business. He told me that no one was on Pao’s side anymore—not even women—and said that the takeaway for him and his colleagues is that VC work is too collaborative to be coed, that men and women should have separate VC firms. Pao had made things worse for women, he said.

Nellie Bowles, San Francisco Magazine (Link)

Abandon hope all ye women who enter the workplace expecting justice, or just a break. Fifty years after women began agitating, litigating and lobbying to end sexual harassment and gender discrimination, things are a bit better, but the struggle is far from over. If you doubt it, consider the case of Ellen Pao.

…. Men aren’t going to give up their power easily and this decision doesn’t help. Most cases don’t get as far as Pao’s – one reason mothers brought their children to an SRO courtroom for the sight of it. Many are settled out of court – for pennies and to discourage other women from filing.

. . .Even at its most blatant and terrible, sexual discrimination can be hard to prove, as this case shows. Part of the challenge for women is waking the world up to it. Pao stepped up and was torn apart in a California courtroom to sound the alarm. She leaned in for all of us.

Margaret Carlson, Bloomberg (Link)

More than 50 percent of women working in tech will leave because of hostile work environments, according to the Center for Talent Innovation. UC Hastings law professor Joan Williams, quoted in the Los Angeles Times, argues that the “subtle stereotyping” Pao alleges is “widespread everywhere,” especially tech.

While Pao’s trial highlighted many of the barriers that face women in the workplace, it didn’t succeed in breaking them down.
Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. – Findlaw (Link)

Management Needs to implement Diversity Policies

Better internal polices are good but not enough. Must bring innovation to the problem.  “If the policies are created “just to check the box, cover your corporate backside, that flies in the face of everything these companies are doing.”  

Freada Kapor Klein, co-chair of the Kapor Center for Social Impact.  (Link)

Startups with only 10-20 employees are asking about how to create a harassment policy, sooner than they would have previously.  
Christine Tsai – founder of seed fund and accelerator 500 Startups.  (Link)

Hearing the ruminations on Ellen Pao’s failed gender discrimination suit against her former employer, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the famous words of Justice Louis Brandeis come to mind: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”

In Pao’s case, the sunlight is beginning to do its work. The public’s engagement with the case reminds us that, though we have banned gender-exclusive job listings and other overt forms of discrimination, there is still much to be done to remove the barriers that impede women’s progress.

. . . .Whether bright sunshine or harsh electric light, the challenge is to use all available tools to bring us closer to equality. As an educator, I believe that learning and awareness, beginning in schools, are best suited to the task of preventing workplace discrimination before it occurs.

Why isn’t “Managing for a Diverse Workforce” a required course in every business school in the country? MBA candidates are taught that collaboration is central to production, and the data show that collaborating with a diverse group improves results. Yet, this value is not always reflected in business school culture.

Anita Hill, Fortune (Link)