Ellen Pao may have been defeated in court, but our eyes have been opened

30 Mar 2015

On Friday night the Twitter machine hummed, blinked and raged with the news that Ellen Pao’s gender discrimination case had been defeated. This was a case that shook Silicon Valley to its core.

On Friday Pao – who is the CEO of Reddit – lost her case against her former employers Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers. She alleged she had been discriminated against in the course of her employment and ultimately dismissed.

What Silicon Valley was not ready for was the storm of coverage that would ensue as salacious details emerged.

Ultimately what Pao has achieved is that she has opened the dam gates on the lack of diversity in the technology industry. And that is really what is at stake here.

“If I’ve helped to level the playing field for women and minorities in venture capital, then the battle was worth it,” Pao said after the verdict was read out.

The case as we know centered on one woman’s decision to challenge how she had been treated by one of the biggest venture capital firms in Silicon Valley.

But this wasn’t Ellen Pao who was on trial, it was the entire culture of Silicon Valley and the wider tech community worldwide.

The fact Pao was defeated is academic – a spark has been lit.

The tech industry, not only in Silicon Valley but worldwide, to many represents, advancement, meritocracy, the future. The epicentre of the march of civilisation.

Pao, an Ivy League graduate, who had a top job in the upper echelons of the tech industry, was in a rarified position that many would have aspired to. But the tawdry details of the case belied this.

Many of us were shocked at the allegations of casual misogyny, behaviour that seemed like something from TV show Mad Men and certainly could have no place in this brave, modern new world we think exists.

Pao’s allegations made harrowing reading. In one sense she held a coveted position in one of the most respected of venture capital firms. In another truer sense it was a lonely and frightening place to be.

Bro culture goes on trial

Anyone who has read Pao’s allegations could not help but imagine the humiliation and isolation she must have felt.

The reality that many more women like Pao have had to feel this way, still feel this way, is sobering.

It appears to be no accident that while the Pao case was being heard that similar lawsuits emerged concerning women who worked at Facebook and Twitter that again shone a harsh light on alleged discrimination and glass ceilings in Silicon Valley.

This could be just the beginning. Pao’s victory is that she she shone a light on the unacceptable.

Pao did not win her trial. But she has won in another way. She started a debate about the treatment of women in an industry that still guards its secrets closely.

And now there is no where left to hide.

Gender discrimination image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years