How women in tech see Ellen Pao’s gender discrimination case

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to a verdict in a sex discrimination case in Silicon Valley that's been widely watched. A jury of six men and six women found gender wasn't a factor in the firing of a former junior partner at a leading venture capital firm.

Our Hari Sreenivasan has the story from our PBS station KQED in San Francisco.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The sex discrimination case drew attention to gender imbalance, working conditions and outright discrimination for women in the tech world.

Attorneys for Ellen Pao argued she was denied a promotion at Kleiner Perkins and kept out of meetings because she is a woman. She was later fired in 2012. Kleiner Perkins said Pao was a chronic complainer who twisted the facts and wasn't a team player. The jury rejected all of Pao's gender discrimination claims.

Late today, the judge sent the jury back to reconsider one claim: whether she was fired in retaliation after making complaints.

Fran Maier is the founder of TRUSTe, an online privacy management services provider, and co-founder of Match.com. And she's been watching this case closely.

So, are you surprised by the decision?

FRAN MAIER, Founder, TRUSTe: You know, I think, from the beginning, everybody thought it was going to be a tough case one way or the other.

Ellen is complex. There were a lot of different kinds of issues. And gender discrimination suits are hard to prove. But I am disappointed and I think many women in the tech world are very disappointed today.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, was this a symbolic case in some measures?

FRAN MAIER: Well, there's been a lot of stories about women and technology that haven't been very favorable, frankly, to men in technology.

We have the situation Uber and "Boober" and Titstare, a new app, and other kinds of issues that have been coming out. And there are so many images of boys running the show that, for many women, it was seen as our opportunity to talk about the reality of working in tech companies, working in a venture capital, and trying to see some good things happen and change.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Is it specific just to the venture capital world or the larger tech world?

FRAN MAIER: I think most women in Silicon Valley see it as a larger tech world.

And, in fact, tech companies don't do very well with women in the C-suite or at the vice president level or at board. My ex-company has 42 percent women in management at the director level, so I'm happy about that, but many companies don't. And every woman I know can say that they can — that Ellen's experience resonated with them.

So, for example, not being invited to the ski trip, or having — not having a seat at the table, or the slight sexual harassment or sexual discrimination things, we have all experienced it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: OK.

So, what does this do — I mean, Kleiner Perkins is one of Silicon Valley's largest, most well-reputed venture capital firms. Does this do something to their reputation, whether she wins or loses? She lost today.

FRAN MAIER: I think, from the very beginning, Kleiner Perkins, because of their influence, certainly was getting the spotlight here and other V.C. firms.

Only 6 percent of V.C. partners are women, so that's pretty poor. But V.C.s have a big impact on all start-up companies. They sit on their boards. They advise the CEOs. They obviously provide the capital for growth. So, in many ways, a lot of tech companies take their cues from what they see in the V.C. world.

HARI SREENIVASAN: One of the ideas that the technology industry or Silicon Valley is able to portray is that this is not like the old boys' club, that this is the meritocracy, that your ideas matter and this is where you get ahead. And it seems that this case sort of — kind of uncovered that a little.

FRAN MAIER: Yes. I think that's one of the important things, is it has shown it really isn't a meritocracy, that many times it's very much about who you know, and who you want to work with, who is like you.

And that's why it perpetuates this image. Another thing Silicon Valley always has is, hey, we're great, we're going to change the world. And fast-growing companies sometimes get a pass on trying to do the things that they should be doing.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What happens now? Even though Ellen Pao lost, does this end up elevating this conversation in a way?

FRAN MAIER: Well, I think it's going to elevate this conversation, yes.

But I think the message for women is not to get too discouraged. We need to step up. We need to do more. We need to form more of our own companies. We need to invest in each other. We need to find some investors on some of the new networks like Portfolia or some of the female-led V.C. firms like Aspect and make things happen.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Fran Maier, thanks so much.

FRAN MAIER: Thank you.

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