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Ellen Pao is ‘a Rosa Parks’ for women in Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley women are disappointed Pao lost her gender bias claims, hope her case opens the door for better policies

Silicon Valley likes to think of itself as a meritocracy.

That is why Ellen Pao’s gender discrimination lawsuit against the powerful venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Beyers, while unsuccessful, is deemed by many to be so important. It publicly challenged the idea that in Silicon Valley, hard work and razor-sharp intelligence are always rewarded. Would a top venture capital firm really hold back a brilliant engineer with two Harvard degrees simply because she was a woman?

That’s what Pao’s lawsuit asserted. She claimed the firm had failed to promote her from her position as junior partner because she was a woman, while male employees with similar performance records were allowed to advance. Her standing at the firm had plummeted, she alleged, after she ended an affair with former Kleiner Perkins partner Ajit Nazre, and she also claimed the firm retaliated against her for filing the gender bias suit by firing her.  

Pao ultimately lost. On Friday a jury returned a verdict which went against all her claims of gender discrimination against the company. Even so, the case may serve as a catalyst for more open discussion of sex discrimination at Silicon Valley tech companies as well as more lawsuits. Earlier this month, former Facebook project manager Chia Hong filed a lawsuit against the social networking giant, alleging she was treated differently — asked to plan parties and serve drinks to male employees — and then fired because of her race and gender. And Tina Huang, a software engineer at Twitter who left the company last year, filed a class-action lawsuit earlier this March claiming that the company's promotion process was opaque and favored men.

Shirley Hines, who has run public affairs campaigns for valley technology companies since the 1980s, hails the lawsuit as the beginning of a major change. “Ellen Pao is a Rosa Parks,” she said. “She is the one who basically said, ‘No, enough.’ To her credit, she’s very brave. I admire her for just taking it on, and saying ’no.’”

The most salacious parts of Pao’s lawsuit — that Nazre showed up at a female partner's hotel room wearing nothing but a bathrobe, and that women were excluded from a team dinner because they were "a buzz kill" — riveted the international media, but are all too familiar to many women in Silicon Valley.

“Ellen’s story is the exact same as everyone else's, which is the story of a club that is not open to women,” said Rebecca Eisenberga friend and Harvard Law School classmate of Pao’s who has worked as an attorney for technology companies for 20 years.

That club extends from the wealthy titans of the venture capital world to the “brogrammers” who dominate the companies they fund, from Facebook to Google to Twitter. But if young women in the industry are prepared for the rude comments and casual sexism, many say they are not prepared to see their careers derailed by it. 

“To some extent, that’s what I signed up for working in the tech industry,” says Ashley Carroll, a product leader for a Silicon Valley tech company who has worked in the field since 2006. “But what I’m not OK with is not getting promoted.”

Carroll, who earned an MBA at Stanford, said that many of the women she knows in the technology sector are choosing to get out because they are getting passed over for promotions. Many tech companies talk about their efforts to hire more women, she said, but what are they doing to retain them?

“I really feel that the solution is getting more women into decision-making positions,” she said. “I’m striving to be one of those women, and to be able to serve as a role model and help define a company culture that is very supportive of women.”

While that cultural change may take years, the Pao lawsuit may lead some tech firms to re-evaluate how they make decisions about promotions, and rely on results rather than personality.  

“She’s a loyal, dependable, amazing, kind, generous person,” Eisenberg said of Pao. “But let’s say she was as selfish and as difficult as they’re painting her to be. If she was making money for the limited partners, she still deserves this job.”

Joan Williams, the founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at U.C. Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, said she expects Silicon Valley firms to be more rigorous in documenting human resources conflicts, but she worries that Pao’s lawsuit will have a chilling effect on women. “The clear strategy was to make her unlikeable, and it was successful,” Williams said. “She was characterized as both too quiet and passive, and also too demanding. That’s a pretty narrow tightrope.”

Pao, for her part, took the long view in a brief statement to reporters on Friday after the 12-member jury rejected her four claims of gender discrimination. 

“If I’ve helped to level the playing field for women and minorities in venture capital, then the battle was worth it,” she said.

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