The Pao Effect: Silicon Valley's Discrimination Case Is Only the Beginning

The jury is still out, but the case is already boosting women.

|
Mar 25 2015, 4:40pm

Ellen Pao. Image: Kleiner Perkins

Attorneys are expected to finish their closing arguments Wednesday in the gender bias lawsuit interim Reddit CEO Ellen Pao brought against former employers at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, drawing a close to five weeks of testimony that have brought allegations of sexism in Silicon Valley into focus.

The jury will soon begin deliberation, and regardless of its decision, the case has been hugely important for the debate surrounding sexism and workplace discrimination in the tech world, and the attention it has brought to the issue may already be showing an effect.

Since the trial began, Chia Hong, a former Facebook employee, filed​ a suit against the social media giant for harassment and gender and racial discrimination, alleging her coworkers "engaged in a pattern and practice of discrimination." She claims male colleagues made her serve them drinks and organize parties, something that "was not a part of her job description and not something that was requested of males with whom she worked," she s​aid. An ex-Twitter employee, Tina Huang, also filed a gender bias suit against Twitter, alleging sys​tematic discrimination.

"Maybe they would have been filed without Pao, but it is quite a coincidence."

"It is pretty striking that since then, there have been two major cases filed against different tech companies in San Francisco," said Joan C. Williams, a law professor at UC Hastings College of the Law. "Maybe they would have been filed without Pao, but it is quite a coincidence."

Pao claims she was discriminated against at Kleiner Perkins, including being passed over for promotions by less-qualified male colleagues, and that she was ultimately fired for speaking out. The defense counters that only Pao herself was to blame for her firing and that "there was and is no gender discrimination at Kleiner Perkins," as defense attorney Lynne Hermle said during her closing ​statements. Pao is seeking $16 million in damages.

The sexist culture described by Pao echoes claims from other women who have spoken out against employers in Silicon Valley in the past. In 2014, Julie Ann Horvath, a top developer at GitHub very vocally quit t​he company due to internal culture she described as toxic to​ women. Whitney Wolfe, a co-founder of Tinder, sued t​he company for sexual harassment, but ultimately settled out of court in 2014. A female employee of real estate startup Zillow filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against the company in 2014, alleging an ​environment of "sexual torture," but the case has stalled. Much has been said about g​ender imbalance in Silicon Valley, but the Pao suit may be the most concrete showcase of it in court yet.

"The Ellen Pao case is incredibly important for Silicon Valley culture," Elissa Shevinsky, CEO of cybersecurity startup JeKuDo and editor of an upcoming book about women in tech called Lean Out told Motherboard by email. "Gender discrimination in tech has always been illegal. This case represents a moment where sexism in Silicon Valley is not only illegal––it is no longer being tolerated."

The cases filed against Facebook and Twitter have the potential for a much broader effect than the Pao case, according to s​ome in the Valley. Nicole Sanchez, CEO of Vaya Consulting, a Silicon Valley firm that helps companies recruit and retain diverse employees said the Pao case "could pale in comparison" to the Huang case in terms of effect on the average professional woman.

"Ellen Pao was in the rarified air of investors, which is still mysterious to a lot of people, even those who work in tech," she said in an email. "But a high-profile company to which millions of people have an every-day relationship? That's huge."

In her proposed class action suit against Twitter, Huang co​ntends the company's promotion system, "creates a glass ceiling for women that cannot be explained or justified by any reasonable business purpose, because Twitter has no meaningful promotion process for these jobs: no published promotion criteria, nor any internal hiring, advancement, or application processes for employees." The case is more broad than Pao's, and lays out in clear l​anguage specific practices that are hurting women at the company.

In addition to being broader in scope, the Twitter case also lacks what has been one of the biggest detriments to Pao: her workplace relationship. The defense has hammered on Pao's relationship with Ajit Nazre, a partner at the firm, in testimony, as a means to smear her.

"I recommend that both men and women avoid romance in the workplace," Shevinsky said of the trial. "The Ellen Pao case is a good example of how this can be damaging for both the men and women involved, even when the relationships are consensual. Women often pay a steeper price for these relationships, but they can be harmful to men as well."

For all the encouragement Pao's case could give women, it also shows the price of coming forward on this kind of issue. Pao's personality has been put on trial. The defense has painte​d her as unlikeable and "not a team player," saying she was not promoted beca​use of her bad attitude, not her gender.

"If she wins or loses, this experience will stand as a graphic reminder of what happens to women when they make accusations of their employers," Sanchez said. "Women will still be wondering 'Is it worth it?' Ellen Pao has been dragged through the mud. Her personal life has been upended, her reputation smeared. That stands, independent of her winning or losing."

For all the encouragement Pao's case gives women, it also shows the price of coming forward

Dominique DeGuzman, an engineer at cloud communications company Twilio who speaks frequently about women in tech, said the case is much bigger than Pao, and with 100 p​ercent of women of color reporting gender bias and discrimination against at work, there is a long way to go.

"To say that this case only affects Pao is to ignore every other case where women were discriminated against or written out of the story," she said by email. "Pao is one of the voices that will not be bullied or hushed, she was vocal about her discrimination and followed with a suit. Imagine all of the women that have lost their jobs or have been written out of the story, due to some excuse that failed at hiding the blatant sexism involved. This case carries their voice, even if it doesn't intend to."