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Jury Determines Kleiner Perkins Did Not Discriminate Against Ellen Pao

The conclusion of a years-long trial seems like a loss for women, but what does it mean in the bigger picture?

Jury Determines Kleiner Perkins Did Not Discriminate Against Ellen Pao
[Photo: © Eric Risberg/AP/Corbis]
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The jury, made up of six men and six women, have decided that the firm did not discriminate against Pao on basis of gender. She sought as much as $16 million in damages. The judge has sent the jury back for more deliberation on the claim that she was fired in retaliation for filing a lawsuit.

Even with this verdict reached, the trial has put a spotlight on a certain ugliness in Silicon Valley that usually stays hidden behind conference curtains and closed doors.

“I don’t think they got away with anything,” says Felicia Medina, managing partner at Sanford Heisler Kimpel, LLP, San Francisco office, who has followed the case closely and has experience with gender discrimination lawsuits. “Ellen Pao had her day–many days–in court, and the whole world knows now what goes on in that place. They’re going to have to do a lot to mend that reputation. This topic is not going to go away. It’s now at the forefront of public discourse.”

We write frequently about how gender plays out in STEM and Silicon Valley, and refer to the subtle sexism that many experience every time they enter a boardroom or have to fight for a promotion. And in Pao, we have an imperfect person, her personality on trial.

Here’s what this case means for gender equality in Silicon Valley:

Women In Tech Are Hesitant To Stand Up

This case could either embolden or discourage young women from taking a stand against workplace harassment and gender discrimination. With the no-discrimination verdict, will VC firms think twice before hiring more women–and will women hesitate before bringing the harassment and discrimination they might receive into the open?

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Fortune tried to get in contact with more than a dozen female venture capitalists to speak about this trial. Most wouldn’t respond. Some of the women contacted had been warned against giving interviews about the trial or the industry, in case it could hurt them down the line in their career.

Sure footing often is required before a woman will stand up and speak out. There’s too much at risk if the carpet’s pulled out. Software company cofounder Heidi Roizen told Fast Company about the time an executive put her hand in his unzipped pants at a dinner table. “For a long time, I never told that story to anyone,” she says. “When I did tell it [on my blog], I didn’t tell it to shame or fault anyone, but to let people know that these things actually happen to women.”

These things do happen to women. But even as companies are pressured to diversify their teams, there is still too much at stake for a woman who stands up to her aggressors. Pao put her name and reputation on the line, a burden that has cast her as either a symbol of hope for others trapped in similar situations in their careers, or a gold digger without skills to back up her need for validation.

Unconscious Biases Are Real

Pao has been described as both too soft and too harsh, both sharp-elbowed and soft spoken, the definition of the double-bind scenario many women in male-dominated fields experience. Pao was dismissed in 2012, months after filing a gender discrimination lawsuit against the firm.

Kleiner Perkins argues that she was never qualified for a partner position. Pao’s side says the traits she was fired for are the same things men are promoted for: being aggressive and territorial. Women are held to one standard, and men to another. Pao earned a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University, then both a law degree and a master’s in business administration from Harvard University, according to CNet. She came to Kleiner Perkins with experience as a corporate attorney and working in business development for Silicon Valley companies including Microsoft and Flipboard, and was a corporate attorney.

As Susie Cagle writes, for Pacific Standard:

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Pao was not passed over because she is a woman, but because she was aggressive, territorial, and generally not likable–nevermind that men perceived to have the same traits were rewarded for them instead of punished. The harassment and discrimination are imprecise, complex, couched in judgments of Pao’s personality.

Implicit and unconscious biases are slippery things to take to court, but as Cagle writes, Pao won’t be the last to try.

It’s Statistics Come To Life

This case brings to life the numbers we have talked about for years, certainly as long as Pao has been taking on Kleiner Perkins (and long before), about women in tech: That there aren’t enough of them, that the ones that “make it” fall away as the environments they work in remain hostile, that they’re not welcome in the whitewashed, machismo world of money and power.

Ninety-four percent of VCs are male, and most are white.

Nellie Bowles and Liz Gannes sum up the importance of this trial, and the fascination around it:

This trial is the center of a perfect storm. All year, the topic of women in tech has been hot, and it’s hard to push it forward beyond just writing about the egregious statistics over and over. … And there’s also the elements of the story, which almost writes itself: Billionaires, porn, men in bathrobes.

And as former Yahoo president Sue Decker writes, in her thoughtful essay “A Fish Is The Last To Discover Water,” this trial might not be the most egregious case of gender discrimination to ever happen in Silicon Valley, but it is a watershed moment for women:

But thank goodness there are people willing to stand up for civil rights at times when others are afraid to do so. The numbers have long shown there is a problem for women reaching senior positions in the venture capital industry. No one argues with that.

“That’s what being a woman in business has meant in the last few decades,” Freada Kapor Klein, a partner at venture capital firm Kapor Capital told Fast Company.

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Discrimination has been the status quo for as long as women have been in VC. These companies know that they need more diversity, but they still don’t understand why.

In the end, as Matter reporter Lauren Smiley points out in a blog post, Pao’s been pushed out of VC as so many other women have. And these high-powered firms’ penchant for PR over HR may only get more aggressive.

About the author

Freelance tech, science and culture writer. Find Sam on the Internet: @samleecole.

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