Ellen Pao, a former Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers partner, hasn’t taken her 2012 termination lightly. In a highly publicized $16 million trial against the Silicon Valley venture capitalist firm, Ms. Pao claimed Kleiner Perkins sexually discriminated and retaliated against her, ultimately resulting in her termination.
According to an article from the Wall Street Journal, Ms. Pao cited various instances of sexual discrimination, from being denied promotions and assigned menial tasks at work, to a lack of an anti-discrimination policy at the firm. Most damaging is Kleiner Perkins partner Ted Schlein’s allegation that Ms. Pao didn’t have the “genetic makeup” to be a successful venture capitalist.
Kleiner Perkins maintained that Ms. Pao didn’t succeed “because of her own shortcomings, and misrepresented key incidents at the firm.” As the story goes, her work had been suffering to the point of placing her on a “performance improvement plan” in the second half of 2012. Ms. Pao was eventually let go during a firm-wide downsizing in October of 2012, and was given six months compensation, including health benefits and a bonus.
After a three-year legal fight and a taxing four-week trail, a San Fransisco court ruled in favor of Kleiner Perkins, asserting that Kleiner Perkins had not sexually discriminated or retaliated against Ms. Pao. The jury, comprised of six men and six women, waded through 14 pages of instructions and a seven page form of 30 questions to reach this verdict.
Gender Equality in Silicon Valley
Regardless of the outcome of the trail or the validity of Ms. Pao’s claims, Kleiner v. Pao has raised questions about the treatment of women in Silicon Valley at a time when feminism has taken center stage.
The Wall Street Journal cites recent reports indicating a lack of female managerial or “high-prestige tech” jobs at touted companies such as Google, Yahoo and Apple. At Google, for example, “women fill 48 percent of non-tech jobs, such as marketing and human resources, but just 17 percent of the software engineering, database analysis and other tech jobs.”
This lack of diversity runs even deeper within venture capital. According to a study from Babson College, the share of female executive partners in the venture capital field fell from 10 percent in 1999 to 6 percent in 2014.
Ms. Pao, despite losing her case, expressed satisfaction. “If I have helped to level the playing field for women and minorities in venture capital, then the battle was worth it,” she said after the verdict.
Sexism or Incompetence?
The overarching question remains: was Ms. Pao’s termination the result of inadequacy in the workplace, or was it truly rooted in sexism? Moreover, is this just another example of a rampant feminist vendetta against Silicon Valley?
According to a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Heather Mac Donald, Ms. Pao’s assertions lack both logic and basic business ideology. “Any employer who rejects talent out of irrational prejudice will be punished in the marketplace when competitors snap up that talent. For the feminist line of attack on Silicon Valley to be valid, every tech firm would need to be conspiring in an industrywide economic suicide pact,” asserts Mac Donald.
As far as a lack of diversity goes, Mac Donald claims that inequality puts females in an opportunistic place professionally, rather than a disadvantaged one. “Every elite business is desperate to hire and promote as many women as it can to fend off the gender lobby. Women who deny that their sex is an employment asset are fooling themselves.”
A Cutthroat Business Culture
Fortunately, the answer resides in the market itself—especially in a culture of cutthroat innovation and talent like Silicon Valley. In the long run, only the most competent, lucrative and profitable of Silicon Valley will prevail, regardless of gender. When it comes to business, success and hard work do not discriminate.
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