Ellen Pao is more than symbol for gender inequality
This past week, Ellen Pao, current Reddit interim CEO and former junior investment partner for venture capital firm Kleinerm, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, lost her class action lawsuit against the firm filed on the basis of gender discrimination.
Pao felt that her male peers being promoted to senior partner instead of her was a sign of discrimination. She began to voice complaints of this in December 2011, and was then fired in October 2012. Her lawsuit came on the grounds that her being passed over for promotion was on the basis of gender, and that her firing came as retaliation to her complaints, but jurors reported that their decision came down to lack of evidence.
Throughout the five-week trial, Pao's counsel presented cases of subtle workplace sexism, such as excluding women from firm social events because they "kill the buzz," bringing a woman's maternal status into her professional staus, and labeling Pao as too assertive and "a complainer."
The performance reviews for Pao stated that she was "too resentful." Higher-ups in KPCB described a successful female investor as one who does not complain. None of these are examples of overt, illegal gender discrimination, but that doesn't make the behavior excusable.
These and other examples mentioned during testimony show very clear signs of a sexist culture at KPCB. But because Ellen Pao lost on all counts, there will be no legal consequences for the company. Some are arguing that the fact that this case made it to trial at all is a success because of how difficult it is to take on such a large firm. But because they've gotten away with it, there is nothing to stop it from happening again.
It is helpful that the case brought attention to the issue and the company, and it may put pressure on the industry to simulate progress until the publicity dies down. But what happens then?
There may be no legal basis on which to punish KPCB, but the company needs to held accountable as women move closer to workplace equality. Raising awareness is not enough to take down these multi-billionaire powerhouses. Washington needs to step in and introduce stricter regulations and punishments so that Pao's case and experiences can be more than just symbolic.