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Success from Defeat – Ellen Pao’s loss in court has not prevented her from furthering gender equality in Silicon Valley

April 27, 2015

Piper O’keefe ’17 – Women In Leadership

Even today in the United States, where a woman has just declared her intention to run for president in 2016 and is already considered a frontrunner, women continue to face inequality in many different ways. This is especially seen in Silicon Valley, which contains some of the largest high-tech corporations in the United States. Incredibly so, women only hold 15% of technical jobs and the number of women in computing has not increased in past fifty years. Furthermore, only 4% of senior partners in venture capitalist firms are women.[1] Ellen Pao, who has recently come to international attention, has experienced this inequality first hand and is working to defeat it. Pao, who earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Princeton University and degrees from both Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School, worked as a corporate attorney before transitioning to a venture capitalist position and becoming a junior partner for Kleiner Perkins from 2005-2012. Currently, she now is working as the interim CEO for Reddit. While Pao has shattered many “glass ceilings,” she is now working in a Silicon Valley primarily dominated by men, proving that gender inequality does not hold her back from achieving success. Kleiner has faced much discrimination because of her gender and has gone on to make an incredible impact in the fight for gender equality in the past three years. Pao has raised awareness for Silicon Valley’s discrimination by filing claims against Kleiner and has now moved on to make a momentous move to ensure pay equality as the CEO of Reddit.

This lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins revolved around her treatment while working at the company. While working there, Pao believes that she was not given the fair amount of opportunities that she was entitled to simply because of her gender. For example, there was a case in which she was not invited to a dinner with Al Gore because a certain partner felt that having a woman present would “kill the buzz.” She also faced sexual harassment, having to counter many inappropriate comments and advances from her colleagues. While working at Kleiner, she was eventually pressured into having an affair with a fellow employee of Kleiner Perkins but eventually chose to end the relationship. Because of this, the firm punished her by denying her a promotion and then eventually fired her. On this basis, she filed four claims against Kleiner Perkins after her termination in 2012, holding that Kleiner: did not give her a promotion, because she is a woman; then punished her for complaining; did not prevent discrimination against her for being a woman; and eventually punished her for complaining about this by firing her.[2] On March 27, 2015, the jury ruled against Pao on all four counts.

Despite the fact that the court upheld Pao’s claims, her case has had a drastic impact on women working in Silicon Valley and other firms in general. As AP reporter Sudhin Thanawala observes, Pao’s lawsuit has become “a flashpoint” in conversations about inequality women face at corporations and venture capital firms. It has made many other women think about the discrimination they are facing in the workplace, already prompting some to go to court themselves (such as two women formerly employed at Twitter and Facebook) and encouraging others to do the same in the future. The lawsuit has also made companies realize that they need to improve the working environment for women. While Pao’s case was ongoing, Freada Kapor Klein, who runs the Level Playing Field Institute, working to further minorities in STEM, was contacted by over a dozen companies interested in improving their work conditions for women. Similarly, Laura Bates of The Guardian argues that Pao’s case has both raised awareness for gender inequality in the workplace and shown how hard it is for sexism in the work place to be proven. The greatest lesson that can come out of Pao’s trial is that although women should be encouraged to take cases of discrimination to court, “it is deeply unrealistic to expect victims to be the ones to fix the problem.” Instead, companies should take the initiative to target inequality by increasing diversity and putting measures in place to discourage discrimination.

Interestingly, Pao herself has done just as Bates suggested. This past week, while acting as the interim CEO of Reddit, Pao proposed that salary negotiations be removed from the hiring process in order to prevent gender inequality in salary from the beginning. Studies have proven that while half of men negotiated for their salaries, only one-eighth of women did, because women who negotiate for their own salaries are more likely to be disliked by their interviewer, while men face little repercussions. That being said, men often receive a higher starting salary when they are initially hired. With this in mind, Pao feels that her proposal could serve to level the playing field women face in the work place. As Noreen Farrell of the Huffington Post goes on to say, there are numerous other alternatives to this proposal that could serve to increase gender wage equality, but what is truly important is that Pao is doing something. The inequality that Pao faced as a woman in Silicon Valley has driven her to go to court and, despite her eventual loss, allowed her to raise awareness about the issue, prompting other women and companies to realize the inequality women face and act. As her recent proposal for Reddit shows, Pao will continue to lead by example for gender equality efforts in the workplace.

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