Ellen Pao may not have won her case, but to a handful of tech workers in Silicon Valley, the very fact that her story made headlines was enough. In the Tuesday edition of the Palo Alto Daily Post, a stark black-and-white full-page ad with the words "Thanks Ellen" stood out among the busy lettering and listings, placed there by a group Silicon Valley employees looking to express their appreciation for the former Kleiner Perkins junior partner. Pao had previously brought charges against the venture capital firm for alleged gender bias and wrongful termination, but the firm eventually won out with jurors declining incriminating verdicts on all four charges.
The dismissal made waves in many communities, as activists and Pao supporters decried the allegedly sexist systems of so many corporate bodies and firms within the Silicon Valley region and the tech world in general, but one group, running under the name "ThanksEllen" on Facebook, decided to use the momentous hearing to launch a loftier discussion into the stratosphere.
"Ellen Pao brought to light a situation that happens far too often," wrote the group on their Facebook page. "We don't question the verdict; we appreciate the risk she took by telling her story." The men and women behind the ad itself told USA Today that while they don't know Pao personally, they still wanted to show support. Through a successful crowdfunding effort, those hopes played out.
"It just started with four of us sitting around on Sunday afternoon at Café Venetia in Palo Alto, Calif.," said businesswoman Lori Hobson, who led the charge, in an interview with USA Today on Tuesday. "Ellen's story resonated, it hit a chord with so many [and] ... we wanted to thank her publicly for being brave enough to tell it, and make it so other people might tell their stories." Since the Pao case began garnering higher profile attention early this year, many female workers in the Silicon Valley area have begun to weigh in on what they perceive to be a silently sexist career arena. For women in the tech and finance world, it's often allegedly a virtual boys club, rife with undercurrents of subconscious bias. New York's Annie Lowrey calls it "soft discrimination," which she defines as a subtle way that the tech and business fields often treat women without coming under fire for blatant bias upfront. It's a "pervasive," "persistent," and "exhausting" trend, says Lowrey, pointing to an incident where Pao's higher-ups had allegedly asked her to "soften" her approach to working with her colleagues, and when that didn't happen, decided amongst themselves that Pao might be better suited for an operational role. It was a role much better suited for someone whose "assertiveness [was] too assertive," suggests Lowrey, who works as a political and economic reporter.
For her part, one of the alternate female jurors in the Pao case agrees that the climate for women in the tech, business, and finance world can be a harried place. "The environment definitely is biased against women in technology, and venture capital is even worse," described 51-year-old Erin Malone, a tech designer, in an post-verdict interview with Business Insider. Malone, who did not have a say in the final deliberations, maintains that while she would have cleared Kleiner Perkins of all charges due to what she perceived as credibility issues on Pao's part, she sympathized with the struggle that many women in her career field go through. Whether a victorious Pao ruling would have made that big of a difference for female Silicon Valley employees is anyone's call. But the organizers behind Tuesday's "Thanks Ellen" ad are more than happy about the final outcome — greater and more serious conversation on gender bias in the workplace. "We respect the judicial process," said Hobson on Tuesday. "[But gratefully], at great personal cost and risk to her own career, Pao brought to light a hidden aspect of the business culture in Silicon Valley."
In a culminating statement following the court's verdict on Friday, Pao told reporters: I want to thank my family and friends for [their] love and support during these very challenging times. I'm grateful to my legal team for getting me a day in court, and to everyone around the world, male and female, who have reached out to express support in so many different ways and to tell me that my story is their story too, and express their gratefulness at telling [it]. I have told my story — and thousands of people have heard it. If I've helped to level the playing field for women and minorities in venture capital, then the battle was worth it. Images: Getty Images (1)