On Mar. 27, Ellen Pao lost her gender discrimination trial against her former employer, high-profile venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. While the court may have ruled against her, it’s important not to lose sight of how important this case is in a broader context.
Despite its outsized impact on the US economy, the world of venture capitalists remains largely removed from scrutiny and accountability. Working women are sure to have recognized many of the episodes described in Pao’s case from personal experiences and experiences of their friends.
Yet despite the depressing familiarity, there are still few mechanisms to push for fairer treatment beyond a lawsuit.
Pao sued Kleiner Perkins, in part, to advance women in the clubby world of venture capital. “If I’ve helped to level the playing field for women and minorities in venture capital, then the battle was worth it,” she said. One could argue she sacrificed her right to privacy, allowed her life to be examined and picked over in open court in order to reveal how sexism operates in the plutocratic venture capital world and, by extension, Silicon Valley. Women really owe Ellen Pao a huge gratitude for taking such a public stance.
The details of the alleged discrimination have been abundantly analyzed elsewhere, but some of the highlights include men-only ski trips and dinners, segregated so women wouldn’t “kill the buzz.” While a jury of her peers may have disagreed, these types of adolescent attitudes are a clear reflection of an industry that itself is in adolescence. Mix in what Pao argued was a lack of basic human-resource functions, and you have the perfect environment for discrimination.
The good news is, Ellen Pao’s sacrifice may not ultimately have been made in vain. Newly filed gender discrimination lawsuits against Facebook and Twitter suggest her lawsuit may serve as a catalyst for women who realize their gender is holding them back.
Interestingly, American corporations might be wise to learn from their foreign competitions. Outside the US, some countries are taking a much more aggressive stance to advance women, indicating an increased awareness of the important role female leadership has to play in greater economic growth and lower economic volatility. On Mar. 6, Germany passed legislation requiring its largest companies to fill at least 30 percent of board seats with women by next year. This quota will rise to 50 percent in 2018.
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