Ellen Pao’s Lawsuit: The First Step to a Broader Fight in Silicon Valley


Dhiraj Nallapaneni

In March, Ellen Pao lost a high-profile discrimination lawsuit against her former employer, Silicon Valley venture capitalist firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byer, where she was a junior partner. The suit alleged that the company had discriminated against Pao for her gender and asked for $16 million in compensation for the income Pao had lost as a result of the company’s prejudiced actions, which included promoting less accomplished male candidates over her and targeting her for ending a relationship with a colleague. Though the outcome of the case seemed like a victory for the status quo, the lawsuit highlighted the troubling culture of Silicon Valley and made clear some possible ways for women to overcome some of the barriers they face in the industry.

The Silicon Valley venture capitalist scene is undoubtedly sexist. Women only make up 6 percent of partners at venture capitalist firms. As a result, it has become an insular “boy’s club” where women are not taken seriously. For example, Pao reported in her original complaint that Kleiner Perkins would not invite women to dinner with entrepreneurs because they would “kill the buzz.” Critics of this emerging feminist movement in the venture capitalist scene like to claim that Pao and other females are simply suffering from a case of political correctness taken to the extreme, but the fact is that immature incidents like these unfairly hinder female advancement. Incidents like these are not just an instance of “joking around”—they give male employees an undeserved advantage over female employees.

As the outcome of Pao’s case suggests, filing discrimination lawsuits against these large firms may not be an effective way of dealing with the problem, though it may be a step in the right direction. Proving discrimination in a court of law is very difficult. In today’s world, employers exercise precaution to avoid discrimination lawsuits, making sure that there is no tangible evidence to prove an employee’s unequal treatment was due to prejudice rather than an employee’s incompetence and oversensitivity. Kleiner Perkin’s lawyers had no trouble explaining away all the slights done to Pao; the reason that she had never gotten her desired promotion was that she was abrasive and not a team player. According to them, she was using her gender as an excuse for her own shortcomings as an employee.

All this was in spite of the fact that Pao, as pointed out by her lawyer, had generated more revenue for the company in 2012 than any of her male coworkers who had received promotions, and that she received positive reviews from every start-up she ever worked with. Kleiner Perkins executives also commended male employees for their “cocky” behavior in company notes but reprimanded Pao for hers in their trial brief, illustrating a clear double standard. Despite all this, there is no way to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Pao was victimized for her gender, proving that gender discrimination lawsuits alone cannot solve the problem. However, lawsuits may be a means to help the cause.

To change Silicon Valley culture, women need to find their way into managerial positions and change the environment from the inside, stamping out the implicit biases of their male underlings and colleagues. Accomplishing this is no simple task, as men currently dominate these positions and will resist any outside agitation. In order to get what they want, women need to advocate and publicize the issue, forcing so much negative attention that the men in charge will be have to make a change. This can be accomplished through lawsuits, protests, or publicly calling attention to sexist behavior. After Pao’s lawsuit, other venture capitalist firms will make an attempt to treat their female employees better in order to avoid any future negative publicity. Though Pao’s lawsuit failed, she may have helped create a better future for women in the industry.

If you are a young woman looking at a career in venture capitalism, you probably won’t have an easy path. However, by advocating publicly against the biases and slights you face and striving to the top, you might just make things significantly easier for the women who come after you.