After Ellen Pao, a former partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins and currently interim CEO of Reddit, lost her discrimination lawsuit against her former employer two weeks ago, some worried that the outcome would discourage other women from bringing lawsuits against the industry.
That fear doesn’t seem to be panning out. Last week, two different women brought lawsuits against technology companies for gender discrimination.
In one, Heather McCloskey charged Paymentwall Inc., an online payment company, for allowing harassment and a misogynist environment. She alleges that her supervisor, executive Benoit Boisset, made disparaging remarks about her appearance and called her a “big bitch.” She says he also grabbed her by the waist and said, “You’re a very bad girl, you need to be spanked up real good.” He also allegedly made disparaging remarks about women as employees in general. When she complained, she says she was told to simply tell him no and “thick skin up and deal with it” because he “makes a whole lot of money for this company.” The lawsuit claims that the company has no handbook, harassment policies, or human resources department. She says she was fired after making her complaints.
In another, Elisabeth Sussex filed a complaint against AliphCom, which makes Jawbone fitness devices, alleging that she was fired for complaining about how an executive treated women. According to the suit, Chief Technology Officer Michael Luna treated female employees in a demeaning and abusive way, leading one to “quit in disgust.” After Sussex says she complained to management, she was demoted and eventually fired despite her previously good performance track record.
Those suits are the first to be filed after Pao’s case was decided, but even while the trial was still taking place one was filed against Facebook and another against Twitter. Former Facebook employee Chia Hong alleges that she was asked why she didn’t spend more time at home with her children and punished when she used company-provided time off to visit her children’s school, made to organize office parties while men were asked to do so, and eventually fired after complaining and replaced with a less qualified man. Tina Huang has charged Twitter for using a promotions process that is allegedly secretive and subjective and ends up helping me get ahead while holding women back.
Those lawsuits also followed others in the industry before Pao’s trial began: One against Tinder from a former female executive alleges that her cofounders downplayed her role and harassed her until she resigned, and another against Zillow says that management sent a former female employee pictures of genitals and asked her for sexual favors.
All of the lawsuits bring up the fact that the technology industry is still overwhelmingly dominated by men, even after some companies have said they want to change the picture. Women make up just 11 percent of executives at the largest Silicon Valley companies. Some firms have released their diversity data, and it doesn’t look much better. At Facebook and Twitter, for example, the executive teams are 77 percent and 79 percent male, respectively. Even further down the chain, Facebook’s tech team is 85 percent male while Twitter’s is 90 percent.
The fate of all the gender discrimination lawsuits against technology companies is uncertain. The suit against Tinder has reportedly been settled without the company admitting wrongdoing, and others may not make it to a court room. As Pao’s case shows, even if they do end up in court the women may not win. But they are at least sparking a conversation about the bias women face in the industry and in today’s workplaces in general. As Pao herself recently said, “Women who felt like they were uncomfortable before, that there was something that jus wasn’t right, are hopefully now more comfortable pointing it out.” And at least some women in Silicon Valley are grateful for Ellen Pao’s efforts to expose that bias.