In an unsettling new trend, a growing number of women are suing big-name companies in Silicon Valley for gender discrimination, and reporting they were held back from promotions and other opportunities by male-dominated company cultures. A judge ruled Saturday, in a development that could add millions of dollars to the total if she wins, Ellen Pao can sue Kleiner Perkins for punitive damages. But wait, there's more. A former Twitter employee, Tina Huang, says she was discriminated against and unfairly held back from promotions, according to Mashable, and also alleges the microblogging company has a systemic problem that stems from its lack of formal promotion procedures. The cases raise startling questions about gender equality in the tech industry.
In Pao's case, The New York Times reported that San Francisco Superior Court Judge Harold Kahn found the Silicon Valley venture capital firm "engaged in intentional gender discrimination by failing to promote Ms. Pao and terminating her employment." Pao, now the interim CEO of Reddit, says that when she worked for Kleiner Perkins, she was the target of discrimination and retaliation by partners at the firm, and that the company failed to respond to her complaints. She was fired in 2012, and is seeking $16 million in potential lost wages.
For its part, Kleiner Perkins says Pao did not have the skills to advance (despite holding degrees from Princeton and Harvard). But Silicon Valley has been riveted by the trial, which could have large implications for other tech companies if Pao is successful in demonstrating a pattern of bias.
At Twitter, Huang says promotions come via a "shoulder tap," which excludes women from upper-level engineering positions. Huang, who resigned from Twitter in 2014, says she tried to take her concerns to Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, and was then put on a three-month leave as the company investigated her complaints, Mashable reported. A Twitter spokesman told Mashable the company is "deeply committed to a diverse and supportive workplace," and that Huang was treated fairly.
In yet another suit, a woman represented by law firm Lawless & Lawless (really), the same firm representing Pao, is suing Facebook for gender and race discrimination. Former Facebook employee Chia Hong, who was fired in 2013, says her former boss discriminated against her and harassed her because she is a woman of Taiwanese descent. In its reply, Facebook said it works extremely hard on issues related to diversity, gender and equality," and that the record will show Hong was treated fairly.
It seems the go-to response for Silicon Valley companies to women who complain is to say, "She was treated fairly." Whether or not Pao, Huang, and Hong are ultimately successful in their given lawsuits, they've raised many troubling issues about how women are treated at Silicon Valley tech companies. And the lack of formal procedures is one that cries out to be addressed; how can a company be sure its employees are being treated fairly when there aren't procedures in place to ensure such treatment? Whatever comes of these respective lawsuits, at the very least, it's time for Silicon Valley to grow up and take its female employees seriously.
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