Lilian Min
March 12, 2015 8:00 am

Sexism is something that creeps into all aspects of society, but is an especially dominant force within the Silicon Valley-based tech industry. While women are still underrepresented in STEM fields in general, the oftentimes glossy portrayal of tech start-up culture is, to put it lightly, brutal for women trying to break into or move up in the industry. Even the women, like ex-Tinder co-founder Whitney Wolfe, who’ve cracked the glass ceiling to occupy high profile jobs face backlash and discrimination from co-workers and Internet commenters alike.

Ellen Pao is one such woman — she’s currently the CEO of Reddit, one of the largest web communities on the Internet and a breeding ground for funny stories, Ask Me Anything queries (even President Obama did one!), and memes. She’s also suing venture capital firm and former employer Kleiner Perkins, where she worked from 2005-2012, for gender discrimination and retaliation, specifically on the grounds that, unlike three of her male colleagues, she was never promoted to senior partner. After two weeks of testimony in the case, Pao herself finally took the stand this week, tackling the male-centric culture of both Kleiner Perkins and, indirectly, the tech industry at large.

Pao’s appointment at Reddit in November of 2014 was a big deal: Reddit has a reputation of being, at least on the surface, not that female-friendly. It’s the home of the thread that originally posted hundreds of hacked female celebrity nude photos and also several active Men’s Rights threads, and though it has many neutral or even female-dominated threads, is still prone to the sort of “boys only” culture that permeates digital and tech spaces. Under Pao’s watch, Reddit has updated their privacy policy to outright ban “revenge porn,” giving people (generally women) whose photographs are uploaded without their consent the ability to report photos and get them taken down — a small step, but one that finally enfranchises victims who can face both cyber and real world threats and repercussions.

Pao’s suit against Kleiner Perkins, for $16 million in damages, is a step back into the boys’ club. Her complaints against the company cover a lot of, if true, heinous behavior: She claims superiors ignored complaints about Ajit Nazre, a senior employee who allegedly engaged in an affair with Pao and then cut her out of important meetings as retaliation over Pao’s ultimate dismissal of their relationship; those same superiors then denied Pao significant promotions because of the complaints she’d made against Nazre, and then promoted Nazre to senior partner.

Kleiner Perkins, for its part, is portraying Pao as self-serving and only interested in the promotion title, not the actual skills and responsibilities involved; they claim that Pao was strictly a chief-of-staff for her former company mentor. But Pao insists that she was always interested in the tech investing world, and even tried to steer Kleiner Perkins to then-timely investments in growing companies like Twitter. She also alleges that on one occasion, she was denied a board seat at a company in which she’d advised Kleiner Perkins to invest, at least partly because she was about to go on maternity leave.

As the trial continues—Pao’s been testifying all this week— the battle rages on. The Daily Beast notes the trial thus far has “painted nearly everyone involved with overarching negativity. Kleiner employees seem sexist and unappreciative of a former employee they regard as kvetching and prickly.”

The bulk of the trial rests on personal testimony and internal documents, and could be confusing to those not familiar with the tech world or legalese. But amidst all of the industry jargon, Pao’s case is by most accounts about something with which we’re all familiar: The gender divide.

As for Pao, her reputation and career are at stake but she claims she’s committed to fostering “equal opportunities for women and men to be venture capitalists,” and this case may just move the needle in the right direction for equality in Silicon Valley and beyond.

Her case has certainly got the tech world’s attention; we can only hope that whatever the courtroom result, it actually inspires change in how companies treat the concerns and aspirations of all their employees, regardless of gender.

(Image via.)

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