What the Ellen Pao Case May Mean For Gender Equality in the Workplace:


Ellen Pao and Gender Equality

The case of Ellen Pao v. Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers is making headlines around the world. Partly because gender equality and discrimination are the bane of the tech industry’s reputation, and partly because it is rare for a case brought by a women suing her employers for discrimination to get as far as trial, especially in the elite world of high profile corporate jobs. Silicon Valley, with its culture of “tech bros” and “brogrammers,” has created an environment of male dominance and sexism.

These companies generally seek to avoid publicity that brings these stereotypes to the forefront, so many such cases will settle prior to trial. When a settlement deal is struck, a confidentiality agreement is signed. An undisclosed amount of money is paid. No one admits to any wrongdoing. The allegations are thus put to bed, and the public never sees what went on in Silicon Valley’s boardrooms. And nothing changes. Until now.

Ms. Pao’s case is poised to be groundbreaking by shedding a light on the heretofore hidden inner workings of this upper echelon of corporate America. Should she win, she could shake things up enough to bring about real change in the way women are treated in the world of venture capitalists.


When a woman enters the marketplace after college, she expects to be entering a meritocracy. She expects an even playing field. She expects to be judged on her merits – her skill at her job. Unfortunately, that is all too often, not the reality.

Ellen Pao

Pao has the pedigree to play with the big boys. No stranger to hard work, Ellen Pao is a Princeton graduate, where she obtained a degree in electrical engineering. Also an attorney, she went to Harvard Law School. After a stint as a corporate attorney, she earned an MBA from Harvard Business School.

Pao paid her dues, first as an attorney for Cravath, Swaine & Moore, and then, after obtaining her MBA, working at several companies in Silicon Valley including as a Senior Director at BEA Systems before joining Kleiner Perkins, where she hoped to earn a position as a partner in the world of venture capitalism. She saw her path forward, and she worked to get there.

Ms. Pao now finds herself at the center of a trial where her credibility and her credentials will be challenged at every turn. For her, that is nothing new, given her alleged treatment at Kleiner Perkins. Dubbed “Silicon Valley’s Most Important Trial,” Ellen Pao is claiming that partner Ajit Nazre reacted to her breaking off a six-month relationship “by cutting her out of work discussions, emails, and meetings.” Further, Pao claims that after the affair Nazre made her job impossible.  Pao made multiple complaints to HR, and went through an independent investigation before she filed suit.  The case is for gender discrimination and retaliation, and has been termed a “He Said/She Said” case by critics.

Several months after complaining to HR, Pao was fired from Kleiner Perkins. For its part, Kleiner has portrayed Pao as a “quiet, resentful, dismissive, and territorial amateur” with “a female chip on her shoulder.”

It remains to be seen how the Silicon Valley-based Kleiner Perkins will fare in the current litigation. The firm has a good deal at stake. Pao suit is requesting $16 million in lost compensation.

The Top 5 Impediments for Career Women (2015):

1. Inequity in Pay

  • According to the latest statistics, women are better educated than ever, earning almost 60 percent of all college degrees. Yet women are still paid 23% less than men on the average.

2. Stress of Having it All

  • Recent statistics point to a continuing trend: more women than ever leave their jobs to stay home full-time to raise their children. It may be the pressure placed on them by society. Mothers are still seen as primary care-givers.  Some may not believe they can have it all without sacrificing dreams of home and family. Women often become stressed and discouraged when heavy workloads or inflexible work schedules seem to make that dream impossible.

3. The “She’s a Bitch” Dilemma

  • Women are told to project a sense of “command” at work. Yet when it comes from a female, she may be perceived as “too bitchy.” If a woman is polite and friendly, she may make herself more popular with some co-workers, but this behavior often makes her invisible to those minding the steps up the corporate ladder.

4. The Glass Ceiling Paradox

  • Only four percent of the CEOs in Fortune’s top 1,000 companies, and less than 20 percent of Congress, is female. Regardless of whether the cause can be found in discrimination, gender restriction of the leadership pipeline, or societal stereotypes, the extreme scarcity of women at the top of the corporate food chain fuels women to question their chances as they push harder to achieve their goals.

5. Women Don’t Trade on Relationship Currency

  • For women, networking remains largely social. They are simply not as effective as men at using their strongest bonds with friends in their business circle to advance their careers. Women hesitate to trade on these relationships because it feels crass. They feel they are taking advantage of a friendship.


The bottom line? Women cannot control the behavior of others. They cannot control the corporate culture. But they can, and should, fight back against inequity. Regardless of the outcome of Ms. Pao’s lawsuit, the national dialogue it has started can be a positive result. If there is a verdict for the plaintiff, women will still face hurdles on their journey to the top.  If the verdict is for Kleiner Perkins, then we must continue to examine these issues. There are virtually no women in business who have not felt cornered, ogled, or minimized, at some point along the journey. Career women in all fields should take stock.  Women should use every avenue available to them to move forward, regardless of whether it may or may not feel “natural.” Most importantly, if they believe they have been treated wrongfully in their place of employment, they need to fight back.

Just like Ellen Pao.


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Oakland, CA


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