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This Is What It’s Like To Sue Your Employer For Discrimination

Ellen Pao’s case against sexism in venture capital sparked a national conversation. Here’s an inside look at what she went through.

This Is What It’s Like To Sue Your Employer For Discrimination
Ellen Pao [Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images]

It’s been five years since women across Silicon Valley and beyond followed Ellen Pao’s landmark sex discrimination lawsuit against VC powerhouse Kleiner Perkins. Pao famously lost the case—and was even ordered to pay back her former employer’s legal fees.

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She shares her experiences of decades of sexism, the emotional toll of a public trial, and her mission to make the Valley more equitable in her new memoir, Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change, out September 19.

In a recent interview with Fast Company, Pao described the process of suing Kleiner Perkins as “emotionally, financially, and professionally difficult.” Her book offers a similarly sobering assessment of what happens when a woman tries to take her employers to court for discrimination. Here’s a glimpse of what it’s like, according to Pao’s own experiences.


Related: “You Just Can’t Imagine How Hard It Is”: Ellen Pao On Dealing With Sexism In Tech


1. Your Personal and Professional Life Will Be Scrutinized

“I often heard people say that my case was a matter of ‘right issues, wrong plaintiff’ or that the reason why I lost was because I wasn’t a ‘perfect victim,'” writes Pao in the prologue of Reset. Once she brought her suit against Kleiner Perkins, Pao says, the firm did everything it could (often with the help of the media) to drag both her personal life and professional performance through the mud. She says:

In response to my suit, Kleiner hired a powerful crisis-management PR firm, Brunswick. On their website, they bragged about having troll farms–“integrated networks of influence,” used in part for “reputation management”–and I believe they enlisted one to defame me online. Dozens, then thousands, of [social media] messages a day derided me as bad at my job, crazy, an embarrassment.

Pao recalls how, despite her seven years with the firm and her backing of companies with billion-dollar valuations, she was characterized as a “poor performer” by Kleiner Perkins in court and interviews with the press. She gives one particularly harrowing example of the ways her former employer tried to paint her as a bad employee:

 A coworker testified that I’d fall asleep in board meetings. In my 14 years in Silicon Valley, in hundreds of lengthy meetings, some involving grueling hours spent on the most archaic of deal points, I’d fallen asleep in exactly one meeting . . . that meeting had taken place right before I had a traumatic miscarriage. The man on the stand knew I’d been hospitalized soon after that meeting and still chose to use it as evidence against me. My many years of working 70- and 80-hour weeks and pulling off multimillion-dollar deals just weren’t enough.

2. You’ll Need to Document Everything

Pao, a former lawyer, is accustomed to building a case and gathering evidence. To that end, she amassed 700,000 pages of documents, mostly from her work and personal email accounts, in preparation for her lawsuit. In her book, she highlights one such email, from 2009, in which her boss scolds her for having pointed out that her pay wasn’t in line with her male counterparts. In it, he writes:

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I strongly recommend you stop complaining about your compensation. Just drop it. It clearly still bugs you, and that attitude of yours is a) no secret and b) damaging to your standing among [our firm’s leaders].

She also kept records of the retaliation she says she faced when she ended a romantic relationship with one of the firm’s partners, noting all the meetings and dinners she was not invited to, and the important emails and calls that she was excluded from. She kept copies of her performance reviews, and documented her boss’s reaction to her maternity leave, which was brought up as an example of her lack of commitment to her job. And she tracked the many sexist comments and jokes she heard and endured over the years.

Pao used all of this to compile a 12-page claim covering everything that happened to her during her seven years at Kleiner, including specific instances of gender discrimination in promotion and pay and retaliation after she reported harassment. This claim became the backbone for her case against Kleiner.

3. You May Have to Work Next to the People You’re Taking to Court

Sometimes women sue their companies for discrimination or harassment after they’ve left their jobs. Frequently, though, they still work at the companies they are suing, which makes it extremely awkward in the office. In Pao’s case, her lawyers advised her that her case would be stronger if she remained at Kleiner after filing her lawsuit. This is what Pao says about that time, during the late spring and early summer of 2012:

The general partners sometimes had long meetings to discuss the lawsuit; the 10 of them would file into one of the large, windowed conference rooms. I could see them hunched around the table looking annoyed as a team of lawyers blared over the speakerphone. If I walked down the hall, the room would fall silent and their eyes would follow me until I was out of sight.

Pao says that this time was so stressful and awkward that she stopping eating and sleeping, and spent most of her time in the office alone. Soon after she filed the lawsuit, she was given a negative performance review. She was ultimately fired a few months later.

4. It Could Take Years

Pao’s case lasted nearly three years. While she had voiced her concerns several times before, she formally lodged her complaints with her bosses in a January 2012 memo. When she didn’t see results from the memo, she filed her lawsuit in May 2012. After years of rebuffed offers to settle or mediate, depositions and jury selection, and relentless press coverage, the trial finally began in February 2015. It lasted five weeks. The verdict came down on March 27, 2015. During those years she became the Interim CEO of Reddit, and juggled her responsibilities in that high-profile role with the daily trial.

5. You Will Realize You Aren’t Alone

Thousands of women across the country followed Pao’s lawsuit closely. Many reached out to her before and during the trial–and many more got in touch after the verdict. She writes:

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The day of the verdict, I received almost a hundred messages on LinkedIn alone. Friends from business school and law school wrote to offer support . . . Even white men in tech emailed me. One of the men who led engineering at BEA wrote, “Regardless of the verdict today, the fearlessness and integrity that you demonstrated though the trial provided a great model for others to follow. You broke a lot of glass.”

Pao received messages of support from some of the biggest names in business, government, and entertainment including: Lena Dunham, Jessica Chastain, Hillary Clinton, Sheryl Sandberg, Anita Hill, and Shonda Rhimes.

But perhaps the most powerful notes were the ones she received from women who had experienced similar situations and people who said that Pao had opened their eyes to the issue of sexism in the world of venture capital and tech. A female lawyer sent this message to Pao (via Pao’s lawyer), just after the verdict:

Je suis Ellen Pao. No matter how “abrasive.” She’s a venture capitalist, for pity’s sake, isn’t she supposed to be abrasive? What we want is a seat. On the plane to Vail. At the dinner with the client. At the table around which decisions are being made . . . And if a women tries to get a seat, she is deflected by subtle criticism that she is lacking confidence, and then she is too abrasive . . . Just tell her we support her.

6. For Better or Worse, The Suit Will Define Your Career

The case against Kleiner Perkins made Pao a household name. Her trial also brought the issues of sexism in Silicon Valley into the spotlight in such a dramatic way that the aftermath has become known as “the Pao Effect.” Even in less high-profile cases, the fact that a woman has sued her former employer (regardless of the outcome) will likely follow her for the rest of her career. In her book, Pao highlights how hard it can be for women who sue:

Before suing, I’d consulted other women who had sued big, powerful companies over harassment and discrimination, and they all gave me pretty much the same advice: “Don’t do it.” One woman told me, “It’s a complete mismatch of resources. They don’t fight fair. Even if you win, it will destroy your reputation.”

Pao spoke with an investment adviser who recalled becoming such an “outcast and target” at her firm once she filed suit that she would throw up each morning before work. Nevertheless, she told Pao she doesn’t regret her decision. And despite the personal and financial consequences of her own trial, Pao says she doesn’t regret her decision either. But it has defined her career.

Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change

Remaking Silicon Valley into a more inclusive place is now her life’s mission. While she was in the midst of her lawsuit against Kleiner, Pao took the helm of Reddit and led the charge in removing revenge porn and shutting down online harassment on the site. (Those moves weren’t popular with everyone, and she was asked to resign in 2015.) Also during her tenure, she attempted to overhaul the company’s culture by making more diverse hires and instituting a sexual harassment policy.

Today, Pao is an investment partner at the VC firm Kapor Capital and serves as the chief diversity and inclusion officer at the Kapor Center for Social Impact. She’s also a cofounder of the nonprofit Project Include, which aims to move the needle in Silicon Valley by teaching companies the value of diversity. Pao writes:

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We channeled our frustration with the tepid “diversity solutions” prevalent in the industry, ones focused on PR-oriented initiatives that spend more time outlining the problems than implementing solutions. To become truly inclusive, companies needed solutions that included all people, covered everything a company does, and used detailed metrics to hold leaders accountable. So we decided to give CEOs and startups just that.

In her book, Pao says that she could have received “millions” from Kleiner had she signed a non-disparagement agreement. She didn’t, and is now able to share her story—and all its lessons—freely.

Editor’s Note: Brunswick Group reached out to respond to Ellen Pao’s claim they hired “trolls” to defame her online. Here’s their response:“We never have, and never would encourage or enlist anyone to “troll” an individual or organization. Ms. Pao’s assertions are completely false, and her interpretation of our website is inaccurate.

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About the author

Kathleen Davis is a Senior Editor at FastCompany.com, managing the leadership and work-life section. Previously, she has worked as an editor at Entrepreneur.com, WomansDay.com and Popular Photography magazine.

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