Optimism for the Ellen Pao case

Opinion by Kelsey Page
April 1, 2015, 8:45 p.m.

On March 27, the jury voted against Ellen Pao’s allegations of gender discrimination against prominent venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins. The verdict came as a surprise to many who had been following the highly-watched case, considering that the trial had revealed specific instances in which the firm had excluded women from company activities or placed women in positions of disadvantage during meetings. Following the trial, Pao remarked, “If I’ve helped to level the playing field for women and minorities in venture capital, then the battle was worth it.” While the verdict may be a minor setback in terms of achieving greater legal protection for women in the workplace, Pao did indeed contribute to the progress of women in the workplace, even beyond the venture capital space.

Like the Anita Hill case that brought sexual harassment into the national spotlight, the Pao case will diminish the taboo surrounding gender discrimination in male dominated fields. Even though technically Hill “lost” her case because Clarence Thomas was confirmed for his nomination to the Supreme Court, the case had a more long-term effects in Hill’s favor. Within a year of the trial, harassment complaints to the EEOC had increased by 50%, Bush changed his mind on a harassment bill, and companies increasingly started offering harassment training. Hill’s impact on the national discussion surrounding sexual harassment remains relevant and alive in the nation’s consciousness, as evidenced by the film in her name released just over one year ago.

Now, Pao’s case for equal treatment of women at work will make those facing the same obstacles more comfortable bringing their own cases to court. Wired.com’s Davey Alba observed that two similar lawsuits, one against Facebook and one against Twitter, have already been filed in the wake of the Pao trial. Given the negative media attention that the Pao case has afforded Kleiner Perkins on a national scale, companies will realize the greater PR incentive to treating women in a nondiscriminatory manner. Consequently, companies will reap the economic benefits of having more women at higher levels when gender barriers to promotion are diminished as well.

The distinction between Hill’s case and Pao’s case also sheds light on the ways in which the challenges women face have changed in the past decade. Whereas the Hill case dealt with overt discrimination, like butt slaps, Pao’s case dealt with the covert discrimination that has become more commonplace in offices across the country. Moving forward, women and employers can look to the Pao case to become more aware of those instances of discreet discrimination that the trial highlighted and identify and address those same problems in their own offices. In the status quo, many women fail to recognize cases of subtle discrimination that they personally experience because they have been socialized to see such behavior as normal. Thus, increasing awareness about the current state of discrimination, like the Pao case has, will help other women to better navigate their careers in anticipation of gender-based hurdles.

Understanding how this subtle discrimination affects women is essential to improving female representation in traditionally male-dominated fields. For example, take venture capital, the field in which Pao had been trying to advance. According to reports from the Diana Project at Babson College, women make up just 6% of partners at venture capital firms. The nature of venture capital in particular is ripe for covert discrimination because it requires women to be tough negotiators, which conflicts with our society’s gender socialization to see women as more communal and less demanding. Going against gender norms in a job that requires one to do so, like in venture capital, forces women into a double-bind between their perceived likeability and competence among coworkers that negatively impacts women. Because this sort of backlash is so deep-rooted in our socialization, it is difficult to confront or pinpoint, as Ellen Pao’s case demonstrates. It is especially important for college students to become aware of the subtle challenges they must overcome because often their college studies do not prepare them for the agentic and assertive behavior they will have to use in “the real world” to convey their knowledge and skills.

The Pao case is not a question of whether the jury was right or wrong in its decision to side with Kleiner Perkins. Rather, in this case, the jury’s decision was really more of a technicality in a case that will have a broader impact on the landscape of sex discrimination in the Valley. The intense media attention Pao’s trial attracted made the lawsuit a landmark case before hearings even started. In many ways, Pao was a guinea pig for such a kind of gender discrimination case, but her efforts to expose the insular world of venture capitalism have paved the way for women to pursue more equal treatment in the future.

Contact Kelsey Page at kpage2 ‘at’ stanford.edu. 


Kelsey Page is an opinions fellow for The Stanford Daily. She is a freshman enjoying her time being undecided, but she is considering something in the social sciences, MS&E, or both. She will likely be found Irish dancing, reading the newspaper over a cup of coffee, or watching Friends reruns. Contact her at kpage2 'at' stanford.edu.

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