The ongoing effort to prove that the white men who dominate Silicon Valley often engage in deplorable discrimination practices against women hit an unanticipated snag last Friday when a San Francisco jury voted in favor of the venture capitalist firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. But the outcome of the lawsuit, that many equal pay and rights advocates had hoped would shine a light on the unfair treatment of women in the technology industry, has undoubtedly served as a platform for more intense dialogue about the issues.
On the forefront of the conversation is the former junior partner, Ellen Pao, who had attempted to sue Kleiner Perkins for $16 million in lost pay, bonuses and unspecified punitive damages. Throughout the 30-day trial, Pao had maintained that she was denied a promotion in 2012 and then abruptly let go when she complained about being treated unfairly. Pao also described the firm, well-known for pioneering Amazon and Google investments, as a “despicably, maliciously, fraudulently, and oppressively” hostile environment for women.
However, Kleiner Perkins’ attorney, Lynne Hermle was able to prove that the firm has a history of successfully attracting and retaining female executives. Hermle also provided evidence that it was Pao who wasn’t a team player and couldn’t hold her weight at the firm.
“It never occurred to me for a second that a careful and attentive jury like this would find either discrimination or retaliation and I’m glad to have been proven right about that,” Hermle told FOXNEWS.
Hermle told the jury how Pao had botched some investments and only sued to recoup her losses. Then the jury heard scandalous testimony from Pao about her relationship with a male coworker that was supposed to support her discrimination claims. Pao went on to describe how the coworker chased her until she had given in to his advances only to discover later that he was married. When Pao ended the affair, her lover retaliated and Kleiner Perkins failed to intervene.
However, Hermle countered with a 2006 e-mail from Pao to her lover that stated she would always look out for him and “never stopped, never will”. Although Pao’s attorney provided additional testimony that Pao’s lover had harassed another woman on the job, in the end, the jury of six men and six women agreed that Kleiner Perkins did not discriminate against Pao. And according to the New York Times, it only took the jury three days to dismiss the three counts of gender discrimination as well as a fourth count on whether Pao was fired in retaliation for her lawsuit. So what’s next for the ongoing effort to prove and stop gender discrimination in Silicon Valley?
Taking Action in Silicon Valley
According to FOX News, after the verdict, Pao waved at the jury and then quickly left the courtroom. And photos from the coverage show Pao smiling as she emerged from the Civic Center Courthouse surrounded by her supporters and attorney.
“I have told my story and thousands of people have heard it,” Pao said after the decision. “If I helped to level the playing field for women and minorities in venture capital, then the battle was worth it.”
But despite the unwavering optimism by advocates that the fight will continue, other see it as a major blow for women’s equal rights and pay issues in Silicon Valley. Bernice Ledbetter, of the practitioner faculty of organizational theory and management at Pepperdine University, told the LA Times the verdict gave the men in the technology industry a pass.
“The outcome of the trial sends a message that women simply have to accommodate to such disappointing cultures,” Ledbetter said.
However, Washington Post reporters, Todd C. Frankel and Andrea Peterson disagree. Despite the jury’s verdict in favor of Kleiner Perkins, says Frankel and Peterson, equal pay and rights advocates declared that the failed lawsuit will still serve as a “warning sign to other technology firms and start-ups — a message that seemed to find a wide audience despite the particulars of a difficult case”.
Redfin’s chief technology officer, Bridget Frey also thinks that Pao’s lawsuit has done a lot to further the fight. In an interview with the New York Times, she said that the case placed an emphasis on gender discrimination in and outside of Silicon Valley.
“Issues about diversity are more at the forefront than they have ever been,” said Bridget Frey. “Without that dialogue, we can’t help each other get better,” she added.
Although Pao failed to prove gender discrimination in her case, other women are coming forward. Felicia Medina, a San-Francisco-based employment attorney, told the LA Times that 10 women from the tech industry have contacted her office complaining about gender discrimination in their places of work. And there also are the two pending gender discrimination lawsuits filed by two women against Twitter and Facebook. How will these cases heat up the discussion?
Confronting Facebook and Twitter
Pao’s attorney, according to the Tech Times, is also involved in the former product manager, Chia Hong’s lawsuit against Facebook for gender and racial discrimination, sexual harassment, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Hong is also suing the social networking service for claims that she was overlooked for a promotion and fired in 2013.
And there’s Tina Huang, who worked as a software engineer from 2009 through 2014. Huang has filed a widely-publicized class action lawsuit against Twitter for gender discrimination. The suit alleges that Twitter operates on a ‘black box’ style of promotion, in which management favors men when it comes to promotions.
Although all of the details about these two lawsuits are still unknown, many advocates will still, without a doubt, be able to cite the old saying about gender discrimination in the tech industry: “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it ....”