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Ellen Pao Verdict: What Does it Mean for Women at Work?

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on March 27, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The gender discrimination trial that captured the attention of Silicon Valley, if not the whole nation, came to a close this Friday after weeks of testimony. Ellen Pao's lawsuit against a storied venture capital firm highlighted what many saw as the subtle forms of discrimination and exclusion that keep women out of some of the most powerful positions in both tech companies and VC firms.

The jury, however, sided with Kleiner. Was Pao just a bad plaintiff with a losing case, or is the boys club back?

Kleiner's Allegedly Discriminatory Behavior Not Bad Enough?

Ellen Pao, once a promising junior partner at the venture capitalist firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Beyers had alleged that the VC firm systematically discriminated against her because of her gender and retaliated when she complained. She sought $16 million in damages.

Pao claimed that the atmosphere at Kleiner was one where women were routinely excluded or belittled. Testimony focused on all-male outings, porn talk in the office and workplace trysts, plus the embarrassing fact that the billion-dollar VC firm hadn't even bothered to adopt a sexual harassment policy.

Some accusations focused on classic "Mad Men"-era discrimination. Pao said that she was told she should be flattered when one partner propositioned her and claimed she was punished after she ended an affair with another. But many of the other claims were based on much subtler discrimination. For example, she was evaluated on a double standard, accused of being both too soft-spoken and too pushy, and said that only female partners were asked to take minutes during meetings.

Many advocates viewed the suit as an overdue chance to take on the often small ways that women can be marginalized in the workplace. The jury's rejection of these claims may indicate that jurors aren't ready to call such acts "discrimination."

A Familiar Narrative

OK, few women in the workforce are powerful Harvard Law Grads throwing millions around at VC firms. But many people, particularly in Northern California's tech industries, recognized a familiar narrative in Pao's tale. Double standards for women are nothing new, but critics are increasingly connecting poor attitudes toward women with the small percentage of female engineers and executives, let alone the miniscule amount of women VCs, said The New York Times.

More than 50 percent of women working in tech will leave because of hostile work environments, according to the Center for Talent Innovation. UC Hastings law professor Joan Williams, quoted in the Los Angeles Times, argues that the "subtle stereotyping" Pao alleges is "widespread everywhere," especially tech.

While Pao's trial highlighted many of the barriers that face women in the workplace, it didn't succeed in breaking them down.

UPDATE: After publication, the jurors were sent back further deliberations, on Friday, to determine whether Pao had been fired as retribution for filing her lawsuit. After two hours, a sufficient majority of jurors found that she had not, meaning that Pao lost on every count of her lawsuit.

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