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Silicon Valley lawsuit shines light on struggles for women in tech

February 25, 2015 at 6:30 PM EDT
A discrimination lawsuit in California involving a former employee at a Silicon Valley venture capital firm signals another instance of that industry being critiqued for its treatment of women. Jeffrey Brown talks to Nicole Sanchez of Vaya Consulting and Nellie Bowles of Re/code.

GWEN IFILL: A discrimination lawsuit in California is shining a light on the hiring and promotion practices of high-tech businesses, especially when it comes to women.

Jeffrey Brown has our look.

JEFFREY BROWN: The case centers on one of the industry’s most prominent venture capital firms, Kleiner Perkins.

Ellen Pao, a former employee there, filed a gender discrimination suit, claiming she was pressured into a relationship with a married colleague, was barred from key meetings, and passed over for promotion.

The company says the relationship was consensual and there was no discrimination.  But the case also has a larger echo, playing into a long-running critique of the role and treatment of women in the big-money, male-dominated world of Silicon Valley, with a Harvard Business Review study finding a — quote — “hostile work environment” for many women, and another by Babson College finding that just under 3 percent of Silicon Valley firms that receive venture capital funding have female CEOs.

More now on the case and the larger issue.

Nicole Sanchez is the founder and CEO of Vaya Consulting, a group that helps recruit and retain diverse employees in Silicon Valley.  And Nellie Bowles is a journalist who covers the high-tech industry.  She is reporting on the trial for Re/code, and was in the courtroom today.

Nellie Bowles, this is really being bitterly fought, isn’t it?  You were there.  Fill us in briefly on the claims and counterclaims.

NELLIE BOWLES, Re/code: Yes, it’s very intense.

This is a hugely historic case.  Kleiner Perkins is a really respected venture capital firm here.  And Ellen Pao is a really respected entrepreneur now.  She is the CEO of Reddit, one of the largest Web sites on the Internet.

And she is alleging that she was passed up for promotions and ultimately fired from Kleiner Perkins based on her gender and on her complaints about gender discrimination while she was there.  And so the stakes are high.

If she wins, it’s a very big deal.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nicole Sanchez, you know, every case of course has its particulars, but why is this one resonating so much in the larger world out there?

NICOLE SANCHEZ, Vaya Consulting: Well, I think it’s the first time anybody has really taken on a firm the size and stature of a Kleiner Perkins.

I think, anecdotally, women in Silicon Valley know this thing happens quite frequently.  Whether or not we found out that this is the case with Ellen Pao, it is — we are all watching to see what happens because nobody has taken on a firm with this much power in Silicon Valley before.

JEFFREY BROWN: Staying with you, Nicole, how does it manifest itself?  What do you see happening on a daily basis for women?

NICOLE SANCHEZ: Well, I think, you know, we need to separate out what we mean by women first of all, because I think, when we say women, there are several groups of women who are facing similar, yet different enough things, that it’s worth bearing out.

Predominantly, the women in Silicon Valley are still white and Asian, and they face a lot of discrimination, harassment, things like micro-aggressions that cause people to leave jobs, death by 1,000 cuts.  And I think there’s a very interesting study that came out of U.C. Hastings recently by a woman named Joan Williams called double jeopardy, where women of color, particularly black and Latino women, are facing an additional layer of harassment around race, as well as gender.

And this plays out in a lot of different ways, both online in social media, but also in the quiet recesses of tech companies, where a very male-dominated and particularly white male-dominated sector, can — has been getting away with a lot for a really long time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Nellie Bowles, you cover the industry.  So, what result do you see?  Are people walking way from the industry?  Are they fighting back?  What happens?

NELLIE BOWLES: I think they’re fighting back.  I think some of the cases that we’re seeing are so egregious.

Like, what I’m seeing in the courtroom are a lot of really egregious examples of — whether it’s gender-based discrimination or what, of gender issues within Kleiner Perkins are coming to light.  So, for example, there was today the revelation that there was an all-male ski trip in which one entrepreneur said, hey, let’s try to bring some women on this.  And a partner on Kleiner Perkins said, actually, no, on this trip, let’s have it be no gals.

And then there’s another story in which a — one partner sort of lured a Kleiner Perkins — a female Kleiner Perkins partner to New York on the auspices of meeting with an important Internet executive, and he turned out not to be there, and it was just a date between the two of them.  And then that night, he tried to push his way into her hotel room, and she had to push him out.

And then, when she went to her Kleiner Perkins superiors to say that she’d like this man not to be on her review board, they actually denied that request, and he was her reviewer.  And so later he was fired, to be fair.

But I think we’re seeing some really bombshell, like, events coming out of here, and so I think the ripple effect will be huge.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, Nellie Bowles, we’re also seeing the company — I mean, the company is putting up a strong defense, right?

NELLIE BOWLES: Yes.  Oh, yes, they came out swinging.

It’s not — there’s little room to compromise, to put it lightly.  They are saying that Ellen Pao was hired basically as a secretary to do scheduling and calendaring, and then that she was never up to the job of being a venture capitalist, and just didn’t have the skill set, didn’t have the interpersonal skills, wasn’t — just wasn’t capable of it, with very strong language.  So, there’s little compromise here.


Nicole Sanchez, back to the industry more broadly.  It’s interesting, at the same time you see these kinds of cases, we also see some very high-profile women in the tech industry.  What is — explain.  Is there a disconnect?  How do you explain that?

NICOLE SANCHEZ: Well, I think that there are some disconnects.

And I think that the danger, just like in any sector, is to point to one or two.  In this case, I am assuming you mean Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg, who are at the top of their game, no doubt.  But it’s very easy to point to two and say, well, if they made it, why can’t you?  And there are things about their profiles, their education, their socioeconomic background that allowed them to do that and really supported them in doing it.

And I don’t knock them for that.  For every Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg, there are literally thousands of women who don’t even come close to that, but are no less talented.  So, I think any time we hold up anybody as a role model for all of us, it’s very dangerous.  It certainly doesn’t bear to mind the struggles.

I see some of the women I was with yesterday, with one of my clients, some of the engineers who are just trying to get good code out.  They’re not wanting to be on an executive track.  They’re not wanting to be managers.  They want to be engineers and design really cool things, and still they are facing a set of micro-aggressions to harassment that causes them to not even be able to do that.

So that would be my caution about holding up a couple of women as success stories and saying that the rest of can do it.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will leave it there.

Nicole Sanchez, Nellie Bowles, thank you both very much.

NICOLE SANCHEZ: Thank you for having us.

NELLIE BOWLES: Thank you so much for having us.