Why You Should Care About Ellen Pao's Lawsuit

by Kim Lyons

For the past two weeks, the Silicon Valley sexism lawsuit brought by Ellen Pao against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins has riveted the tech world. With The New York Times reporting that Pao herself is expected to testify this week, the buzz is likely to increase. To recap: Pao is suing Kleiner Perkins for $16 million, claiming she was passed over for promotions while she worked there because she is a woman. Now the interim CEO of Reddit, Pao says a male partner made her life at the firm difficult by retaliating against her after she ended a sexual relationship with him.

For its part, Kleiner Perkins says Pao did not have the skills necessary to advance at the firm, and failed to meet expectations, which was reflected in her performance reviews. Pao was dismissed from the firm in 2012.

So, why should we care about this case? Here are a few big-picture reasons why the Ellen Pao case is important, regardless of how it turns out.

It Puts Silicon Valley On Notice

There is no shortage of women who report a frat-house environment pervades many Silicon Valley organizations, both technology and venture capital companies, in the tech capital of the world. The Pao case has forced one of the more venerable firms in that arena to put some of its dirty laundry on display, such as its interoffice emails and salaries, as Re/Code reported, which most Silicon Valley firms are loath to do.

If firms fear that internal memos and interpersonal communications will one day be evidence in a suit against them, perhaps they'll reconsider how they communicate. But it's possible knowing they might get caught when they behave badly will put an end to this kind of bro culture environment, or at the very least, nip it in the bud.

It Offers A Glimmer Of Hope For Other Women Dealing With Discrimination In Tech

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The Gamergate movement is just one example of the hostile environment women report dealing with online. Twitter, among others, has been faulted for its lack of response to harassment complaints. When a large, venerable firm like Kleiner Perkins can be challenged for its practices, it suggests other less well-connected players in the tech world are likely to feel the same pressures.

It Reveals The Importance Of Performance Reviews

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This seems like a less-pressing concern among the reasons why this case matters, but think about it. Based on the testimony so far, when Pao complained about being left out of important meetings — because, as she says in her court filings, according to The New York Times, "women kill the buzz" — the partners seemed annoyed. When expectations are spelled out clearly and can be quantified, and are the same for everyone in a given position, it's much harder to give an unfair evaluation, or provide unclear reasons for lack of advancement.

By the same token, any employee who receives a review where they're told they need to improve can then ask for training and guidance about what specific areas they need to work on.

Whether Ellen Pao was discriminated against may or may not be answered during the course of this case. But the questions it's raised should have far-reaching implications, and will hopefully help mend Silicon Valley's broken culture.

Images: Flickr/Nouhailler