Can a sexual harassment suit shatter the glass ceiling in tech?

She’s right. She’s wrong. She’s justified. She’s litigious. She’s a hero. She’s a spurned lover. Whatever you think of Ellen Pao and her sexual harassment lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins, there are a couple of things we know for sure. She has sparked a watershed moment for women’s rights in the 21st century. And she is sacrificing her entire career for it.
I’ll let readers fill themselves in on the details, but the gist is that Pao is charging Kleiner with gender discrimination and retaliation, alleging that the partners in the firm excluded her from meetings and important discussions after a terminated affair with fellow partner Ajit Nazre. She is also alleging a broad atmosphere of discrimination at KP against women. It’s not my place to say whether her claims are legitimate. But that is beside the point.
Filing lawsuits against corporate behemoths isn’t easy. Alleging sexual harassment is even thornier. Pao feels strongly enough about what happened in her seven years at KP to take action that she knows will render her untouchable in the industry. Let’s be blunt (and ironic): this takes balls.
No matter what century we’re in, sexual harassment is an issue that is guaranteed to get the plaintiff a lot of nasty reprisals. The fact that Pao readily admits to sex with Nazre ups the ante on those reprisals – and how the defense will attack her in the courtroom.
Let’s be blunt about something else: someone’s finally had the nerve to stand up and say what we’ve all known for years. It is common knowledge that VC firms are one of the last bastions of boys clubs. Whether Pao specifically was excluded from meetings at KP and subjected to gifts of dirty books is still to be determined. But if she wasn’t, many other women have been, and it is for those women that Pao had to do this.
I made my own brief foray into the world of investing and, especially with a business that focused on female-led startups, I can assure you it wasn’t pretty. I still wince at the thought of one particular investor meeting, in which a smoothly flowing conversation about women entrepreneurs screeched to a halt when he asked, “Don’t you all catfight with each other?” Or the storied tech leader and investor who likes to call my company “that woman thing.”
Or the VC firm that bluntly stated they don’t want to be pigeonholed into supporting women’s ‘causes.’ Or – just one more please – the head of a large startup funding organization who told me to ‘try Meetup’ when I sought serious advice on franchising and licensing.
Women like Ellen Pao are the ones who change things for our gender as a whole. It is way past time for someone to try to make a chink in this armor. As Katie points out in her boys-club piece, out-moded views on gender are simply another way these firms are becoming dinosaurs.
I certainly don’t expect them to thank Ellen Pao for this lawsuit, but they probably should. She’s attempting to drag them into the modern age, something that must happen if they’re going to stay relevant. Kleiner Perkins is the Mount Olympus of technology venture investing. Changes that occur there will filter down into the entire industry.
But it’s especially frustrating that Pao will pay for her stance with her hard-earned career, whether she wins or not. One particular comment on the TechCrunch piece jumped out me. “Yishan Sparklepants Wong” who works at Reddit wrote:
“I doubt these are unfounded. I’ve worked with Ellen Pao and she’s not the type to complain or make frivolous allegations. In my interactions with her, she strikes me as someone who just wants to be able to work hard and get a fair deal….If you actually read the filing, the incidents go back all the way to 2006 and are quite detailed, so for much of the time it sounds like she tried to put up with it and go along.”
The men that still pull the strings of the tech industry need to take notice of this lawsuit and start making changes. Follow the model of 500 Startups, which has a bevy of female partners – and specifically seeks out women-led companies in which to invest.
Put more women on your boards, stack your tech conference’s agenda with female speakers, organize straight-talk harassment seminars in your company. Implement programs that help support women in technology, so it’s not longer as difficult to find “qualified women” for events or leadership roles. Then it’s not a matter of checking some gender boxes for your board or your conference, it’s a matter of selecting the best person who may or may not be male.
In short, Ellen Pao – and all the rest of us – want you to come out of your caves. It’s time to start evolving. As for women in tech, and in business overall, we need to support Pao vociferously. She is, in essence, taking one for the team. We should all tip our hat to her.
Carla Cook Thompson is the CEO of Sharp Skirts, a network for women who are building businesses.