March 27, 2015, could have been the date of an epic win in the battle against gender discrimination in Silicon Valley tech and venture capital culture. Instead, as the jury returned unanimous verdicts essentially finding that Ellen Pao’s suit against venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers had no standing, and that her sex was not a factor in her dismissal, it seemed sexism was alive and well in Silicon Valley.
Of course, discrimination, gender bias and sexual harassment are notoriously difficult to prove. The verdict does not entirely exonerate Kleiner Perkins from wrongdoing. It only affirms that Pao and her lawyers were unable to prove her claims.
“The verdict, in my opinion, does not say that Kleiner is completely in the right. These accusations are very, very hard to prove. It’s so difficult unless you have documented every action and conversation — unless you have a recording of conversations, or a detailed journal you can produce. So that’s not to say that she didn’t have a case, it’s just to say she didn’t have the right concrete proof,” says Jenny Q. Ta, CEO of startup Sqeeqee, a social commerce platform.
Lose the battle, win the war?
Pao may have lost this battle, but her trial, in a broader context, is a minor victory in the war against the entrenched sexism, harassment and discrimination that plagues The Valley. By shining a light on the secretive, insulated world of venture capital firms and publicly recounting instances of sexism, Pao gave voice to what so many women decline to mention.
“There was definitely a perception that the Pao trial was going to suddenly revolutionize everything about gender diversity in our industry. As irrational as that sounds, there were a lot of hopes pinned on that verdict. And there certainly seems to be some depression and hopelessness around the verdict, but there’s also — or there should be — hope,” says Donna Wells, CEO of enterprise education and training solutions firm Mindflash.
The hope is that this trial will bring to light the sad state of gender diversity in tech culture, and start some conversations about how to address and change the status quo. “The ‘old boys club,’ the ‘brogrammer’ mentality. Now there’s visibility, awareness of these issues, and there’s a sense that this could be a conduit to better understanding and dialogue around gender diversity issues,” Wells says.
Sometimes, a highly publicized legal proceeding is what it takes to get issues of discrimination, sexism and harassment front and center and rouse the general public to demand change.
“In the late 1990s, there was a class-action discrimination lawsuit brought by women against Smith Barney [the infamous ‘Boom Boom Room‘ suit, as it came to be known]. I believe sometimes it takes a class action lawsuit against the entrenched practices in industries — that’s what made the financial industry stand up and take notice, and now it’s improved. It’s not necessarily ideal, but it’s gotten better. Taking very public action, regardless of the outcome, is often the first step,” Ta says.
Change starts with you
Culture change in the IT industry is slow, and it has to start with individuals. Ta’s advice to other women in tech begins with a simple edict: Never date a colleague, period. “It happens quite often. When you’re working hard, working closely with someone, it’s understandable that you’re going to begin to like them, even to love them. If that happens, one of you has to quit, period. The double standards for men and women are still in place, and you absolutely have to understand, or at least accept that those rules are not going to change anytime soon,” Ta says.
Understanding the ‘”rule book” also means being prepared to play on the same field and be willing to “act up” within the very system you’re trying to change. “If you, as a woman, have the right skills, experience and qualifications, you’ll get your shot. And succeeding at work is going to be a major way to shift the mindset of the industry, just by virtue that you’re a woman ‘walking the walk,'” Ta says.
While the trial outcome wasn’t the victory many had hoped for, it was a turning point, says Ta. “This is going to affect change, but in a cautious, ‘small steps’ kind of way. People are talking about these issues now, in ways they weren’t before, and are discussing how to do things differently. That’s going to have a major impact on gender diversity issues from now on,” she says.