Former venture capitalist and current Reddit CEO Ellen Pao has lost a landmark gender discrimination lawsuit that underlined the long-standing issue of ill-treatment towards female employees in Silicon Valley.
After the four-week trial, which engrossed the west coast’s tech industry by revealing its secretive inner mechanisms, the jury found that Kleiner Perkins did not discriminate against Pao.
Alan Exelrod, Pao’s lawyer, claimed that the venture capital firm was a “boys club” whose deep-rooted culture discriminated against a talented woman.
Yet the jury sided with Kleiner Perkins’ case that Pao was sacked for being bad at her job, divisive, and not a team-player. The firm’s lawyer, Lynne Hermle, dismissed Pao’s claims as “meritless and frivolous” in closing arguments, adding that Pao “didn’t want to play for team KP, she wanted to play for Team Ellen”.
The jury, which consisted of six men and six women, found that Pao’s claim of being discriminated against based on her gender lacked a case to be answered. It also concluded that she was not fired in retaliation for suing the company.
Pao had filed a claim for $16 million in lost income.
Race and gender are becoming increasingly controversial topics for tech companies. Internal surveys from industry giants such as Apple, Facebook, and Google indicate a lack of diversity among their respective workforces.
Many media outlets have covered every detail of the case, the most prominent of its kind to ever reach court. Kleiner Perkins has backed some of the industry’s leading firms including Google and Amazon while Pao moved on to take up a position on social news site Reddit as its interim CEO.
According to a recent survey on workplace diversity by law firm Fenwick&West, the Silicon Valley’s tech firms have long been seen as a “boys’ club” where women occupy only 11 percent of executive positions. Despite this, the Valley had yet to see a senior woman take a tech company or venture capital firm to court over gender discrimination until Pao’s lawsuit.
The 45-year-old Reddit CEO had claimed she was excluded from important meetings and passed over for promotion after filing a complaint against a senior Kleiner Perkins partner for sexual harassment. She further added that she and other women were barred from work trips, and not invited to a key Kleiner Perkins meeting with former US President Al Gore because women would “kill the buzz”.
On the other hand, Kleiner Perkins said Pao was fired for being a chronic complainer who convoluted facts and circumstances with a history of conflicts with co-workers. Hermle backed this by showing jurors a slide with comments from Pao’s work reviews that said she was “not a good teammate” and accused her of being “territorial”.
Wake-up call to Silicon Valley
Despite the verdict, experts say the case has brought to light the need for the business community to take these allegations seriously. Deborah Rhode, a Stanford Law School professor, said, “I think it’s a real wake-up call to the Silicon Valley community in general and the venture capital industry in particular”.
In a statement released after the verdict, Kleiner Perkins and its partners reiterated that Pao’s claims had “no legal merit” and thanked the jury “for its careful examination of the facts”.
“There is no question gender diversity in the workplace is an important issue. KPCB remains committed to supporting women in venture capital and technology both inside our firm and within our industry”, the firm also said.▪