Ellen Pao’s gender discrimination verdict and why her case still matters for women

In perhaps the most high-profile case to ever bring light to sexism in Silicon Valley, a jury has ruled in favor of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the venture capital firm sued by former employee Ellen Pao for gender discrimination in the workplace. Pao, the current interim CEO of Reddit, alleged that Kleiner Perkins failed to promote her because of her gender, thus failing to prevent gender discrimination in the workplace; and that the company retaliated against her for complaining about the discrimination, and ultimately fired her as a result. She requested $16 million in reparations for the four charges in 2012, and the suit finally went to trial this February.

It was initially ruled that the jury rejected all of Pao’s claims, but the judge ordered the jury to resume deliberations when it was discovered there was a miscount on one of the rulings (regarding the circumstances of her dismissal) — which had all of us on the edge of our seats, because who knew this verdict would get so ridiculously intense and complicated?

But ultimately, the jury of twelve — half women and half men — have officially rejected all of her claims and reaffirmed their initial decision.

The ruling may be a blow for Pao, but it’s not necessarily a setback in the general fight against gender discrimination.  Pao’s case brought much-needed attention to the prevalence of gender inequality in the workplace, particularly in STEM fields and Silicon Valley (even if the defendants in this case were ruled not at fault). And while she lost the case in court, she gained some potentially major wins for women. As reported by the Associated Press, Pao’s case has caused some technology and venture companies to “re-examine their cultures and practices for potential gender bias.” And it’s certainly gotten a discussion going about how women are being treated in comparison with their male coworkers in general, a key first step in working towards any change.

The trial itself was an extremely contentious one — and both sides painted one another in a pretty venomous light in order to make their cases. The bulk of the trial rested on internal documents and personal testimonies, as well; further proof of how difficult it can be to present tangible evidence of discrimination.

Ambiguity is how discrimination actually works these days, and I don’t have much hope that we’ll be willing to face up to it anytime soon,” said Caille Miller for the San Francisco Chronicle.

“I’m neither saying that Kleiner Perkins discriminated against Pao nor that they didn’t discriminate against her,” she continued, “My point is that it’s very difficult to tell — and that this is the difficulty we’re increasingly going to be confronted with in discrimination cases, because this is increasingly how discrimination is lived.”

Miller makes the excellent point that discrimination can be, for lack of better words, nuanced and subtle — which doesn’t make it any less inexcusable, but can make it more difficult to prove. Regardless of the verdict, it was a major win that Pao’s case even made it to trial, because of the burden of proof required.

The high profile nature of the case only further confirmed a problem we already knew to be true: diversity totally sucks in Silicon Valley, and it can lead to problems much bigger than just looking bad on your diversity report. Lack of diversity of any kind can foster an environment where casual discrimination is simply (and perhaps mostly unknowingly) a part of workplace culture, rather than something to be called out on.

As Bloomberg reported last year after Silicon Valley’s biggest companies began to release workforce diversity data for the first time, the disproportionate amount of white men in comparison to, well, basically everyone else, is pretty abysmal.

Regardless of the outcome, details from Pao’s trial revealed a lack of gender-related sensitivity and heightened awareness about the problems that arise when companies don’t diversify their staff.

”This case sends a powerful signal to Silicon Valley in general and the venture capital industry in particular,” Deborah Rhode, a law professor at Stanford University, told the New York Times, after the verdict was released. “Defendants who win in court sometimes lose in the world outside it. Kleiner Perkins has been significantly tainted by the facts that have come out in this proceedings.”

Despite Pao’s loss, her case serves as a wake up call that we need to look at our own ingrained biases and question them, constantly. That is the only way change can be achieved — if we are willing to work for it — and we have major respect for Pao for taking a stand and getting the conversation started again.

(Images via Bloomberg, Fortune.)

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