Economy

Ellen Pao Lost Her Gender Discrimination Suit. Here’s Why Silicon Valley Might Actually Get Better.

CREDIT: AP

Ellen Pao

Reddit CEO Ellen Pao lost a landmark gender discrimination case against her former employer, a prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist firm. A jury ruled Friday that Pao, who was passed over for promotions and ultimately fired from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, wasn’t discriminated against, and was dismissed because of her job performance.

But the 2012 lawsuit’s outcome doesn’t have any bearing on its significance for women in tech. Pao’s suit, which was filed in 2012, sparked a national debate on the tech industry’s ingrained sexist culture that has kept many women not only out of the industry altogether but out of top positions.

That status quo is slowly crumbling, in no small part because of Pao’s lawsuit. Tech companies have been more open about their diversity problems and are making efforts to make workplaces more inclusive. And a slew of discrimination and harassment lawsuits have since been filed against Silicon Valley companies in the wake of Pao’s own.

Former Facebooker Chia Hong filed a lawsuit against the social network company last week for racial and sexual discrimination. According to the complaint, Hong endured sexist comments asking why she didn’t stay home with her children, she was ordered to serve male colleagues and organize parties, and said she was ostracized for looking and speaking differently. After bringing up the treatment to her superiors, Hong said she was fired and replaced by a man with less experience.

A Twitter software developer filed a similar suit seeking class-action status for the company’s promotion practices. (Twitter only hired its first female executive in 2013.)

But in Pao’s case, the verdict didn’t come easily. The jury was split initially but was won over by Pao’s performance reviews that declined over time, and employee testimony. And even though they didn’t rule in her favor, the trial set a precedent for the ones already in the pipeline, and made gender bias a more open conversation.

As Recode’s Liz Gannes put it, “the trial provoked many people, both inside the technology world and outside, to think about the mechanics of how an elite gender-imbalanced world works.”

Venture capitalists who are responsible for the success and billion-dollar valuations of many Silicon Valley upstarts, have the same if not worse, gender diversity problems. Problems, which have been brought to light thanks to Pao’s lawsuit.

What the trial did change is how those issues resonated, as it dragged everyone through the excruciating details of Pao’s tenure at Kleiner Perkins and made us turn the prickly and complex situations over in our own minds.

Those of us following the trial day by day in person or by reading reports had to consider how a person’s personality plays into their ability to fit into an elite club. It made us think through how we’d handle subtle situations that could be seen completely differently through different people’s eyes. It made us reevaluate the ground rules for ambition.

At times it was like we were all in a “Lean In” book club together, discussing the themes of the famous book about women in the workplace by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg — and that conversation included people who would never be caught dead reading “Lean In.”

The trial showed the pipeline problem extends beyond getting more young girls interested in science and technology early on, but that peripheral players like venture capitalists fuel the boys’ club stereotype. Moreover, it showed that simply standing up for one’s self can have an impact.

After the verdict was read, Pao said, “I have told my story and thousands of people have heard it…If I helped to level the playing field for women and minorities in venture capital, then the battle was worth it.”