Though she lost her case, Ellen Pao put sexism in Silicon Valley on trial

Ed. note: This post was originally published on the Community site.

I was on the edge of my blue, cushiony seat that I had squeezed through rows of observers to find. Journalists were tap-tapping away at their keyboards as they updated live blogs and churned out stories on deadline. The judge sat at the front of a courtroom that was smaller than what I expected from binge-watching Law & Order in high school, but the atmosphere was just as suspenseful. We were all witnesses to history: the plaintiff in the largest workplace sex discrimination case against Silicon Valley, Ellen Pao, was on the stand, telling the jury about how she had been sexually harassed and retaliated against during her time at Kleiner Perkins, one of the most respected venture capitalist firms in San Francisco. If only Olivia Benson would come charging into the room with a smoking gun!

At the heart of the case was Kleiner Perkins’ indifference to the sexual harassment that Pao says she suffered. After breaking off an affair with a colleague when Pao discovered that he had not left his wife as he had said he did, the man repeatedly retaliated against her by leaving her out of meetings and emails with important business partners. Then, Pao’s supervisors denied her a board seat because she was pregnant (which is illegal, by the way). Unfortunately, the jury found that Pao’s lawsuit was without merit. But that does not mean that her case will not have a reverberating impact across the technology sector.

Let’s step back for a minute. Why was I, a 20-something college student, sitting on the edge of my seat for a $16 million civil suit against a Silicon Valley venture capitalist firm?

Beyond the substantial economic implications, Pao’s allegations of deliberate indifference by her supervisors to sexual harassment mirror the complaints that college students are making against over a hundred institutions nationwide. I am a survivor of campus sexual assault, and last year, I was one of more than 30 students who filed gender discrimination complaints against UC Berkeley to the U.S. Department of Education. Pao’s lawsuit is indicative of a larger issue within our society: that no societal structure — neither our workplaces, educational institutions, nor criminal justice system — knows how to address rampant sexual harassment and violence.

In the tech industry, it’s not a secret that the numbers of women are embarrassingly low. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times pointed out that even though women outnumber men in graduating from college, women in the tech sector are forced out by sexual harassment and sexism that is too hostile and pervasive to withstand (if you aren’t fired first). And as the technology sector becomes an increasingly important component of our economy, this hostile working environment will become an even larger part of women’s socio-economic calculus.

It’s not hard to see that the gender pay gap will persist if women continue to be pushed out of the high-growth sectors of the economy; it might even get worse. Currently, white women make 78 cents for each dollar that a white man makes, and the gap is even larger for most women of color. Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander women only make 65 cents, Black women only make 64 cents, Native Alaskan and American women only make 59 cents, and Latina women only make 54 cents for each dollar earned by a white man. Over time, this repeated nickel-and-diming adds up to hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost income and wages.

So, Pao’s lawsuit is a big deal. Even though she didn’t win the case, it will have major ramifications for women in Silicon Valley, and by extension, for many women working in the next generation’s economy. As Freada Kapor Klein, a partner at the Kapor Center for Social Impact, told the New York Times, the Ellen Pao trial has jumpstarted a public conversation about women in technology that could grow to be as significant as the conversation about workplace sexual harassment started by Anita Hill’s case against Clarence Thomas.

Another distinguishing piece of this case is that it even went to trial in the first place. Typically, these cases settle out of court. Kleiner Perkins’ attorneys, one of whom was a high-powered woman who once made her adversary “vomit in court,” made the case that Pao was fired for being incompetent, not in retaliation for complaining about sexual harassment. But interestingly, on one of the first days that Ellen Pao took the stand, Pao’s attorney asked her about her conversations with one of her supervisors about potentially investing in a startup called Twitter. He ultimately told her that he didn’t think Twitter had a strong business model and refused to commit capital to the company.

This revelation provoked audible gasps from the audience because, obviously, Twitter is one of the most successful tech startups in the world. The question then became: how could Ellen have been a bad employee if she had the killer instincts to invest in Twitter when it was in its initial rounds of fundraising? The answer is that her ability (or lack thereof) to be a “team player” should have been irrelevant to the case. Her competency was not the issue. The industry’s intolerable hostility towards women was.

If tomorrow’s economy and today’s schools are hostile to women, what does that mean for 20-somethings like me? It means that we need to take action and support the women who are fighting these battles. We can all start by telling Ellen that we stand with her. Send Ellen a message of support here!

Header image credit: “ThanksEllen” Facebook Page

Berkeley, CA

Sofie Karasek is an anti-sexual violence activist, a co-founder of the national organization End Rape on Campus, and an intern at Equal Rights Advocates in San Francisco. She spearheaded two 31-person federal complaints against the University of California, Berkeley, where she is currently a senior studying Political Economy. Sofie has also been a leading advocate for California's groundbreaking affirmative consent law, and has been featured in national and international media including The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, CNN, and Bloomberg Businessweek, in addition to the new documentary about campus sexual assault, The Hunting Ground.

Sofie is an anti-sexual assault activist, co-founder of End Rape on Campus, and an intern at Equal Rights Advocates in San Francisco.

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