Late last week, a jury sided with venture capital giant Kleiner Perkins in a case brought by Ellen Pao, a former employee who alleged she was the target of gender discrimination at the firm. The jury rejected each of Pao’s four claims, ruling that Pao’s performance -- not her gender or her willingness to speak out about harassment -- was the reason she was fired.
Kleiner Perkins may have avoided paying out $16 million in damages, but there’s little else it has to celebrate. The trial, closely watched and widely covered beyond the elite world in which it played out, provided an unflinching look at entrenched biases and daily sexism in venture capital. It wasn’t pretty.
So while Pao may have lost her suit, she made her case before the entire country. And that might matter more in the long run.
There were plenty of overt displays of sexism that Pao’s case brought into the daylight. There were all-male ski trips (because “gents” don’t mind sharing condos, apparently) and colleagues who didn’t like inviting women to dinners because they “kill the buzz.” John Doerr, the firm’s star partner, told an investigator that Pao had a “female chip on her shoulder.”
And while having these incidents aired publicly was undoubtedly embarrassing for the firm, the trial's most significant impact may have been bringing to light the many examples of subtle, daily sexism that act as professional barriers for women in venture capital. (And, you know, women in every other field and industry.) But these things are slippery and often more difficult to talk about than the caveman-style sexism of thinking women are no fun at a dinner party, which is why the profile of the Pao case is so significant.
It took the crazy-making double standards women experience while trying to "lean in" and brought them out to where everyone could see. Pao was criticized in a performance review for being too aggressive, and Kleiner Perkins argued in its defense that Pao was held back because she “lacked the ability to lead others, build consensus, and be a team player.” But two of her male colleagues were promoted after receiving similar rebukes about being “highly aggressive” and having “sharp elbows."
What might have been a company's dirty secret ended up being national news. As one of the jurors told the New York Times, even though she ultimately ruled against Pao, she could still recognize that she experienced discrimination while at Kleiner Perkins.
Even though it failed in court, Pao's case put the statistics on women in venture capital into greater perspective. Just 4 percent of senior investing partners in the industry are women. The great victory of the case may be that it prompted more people to ask why, exactly, that is.