Ellen Pao lit up Silicon Valley and the news media when she accused her prominent venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers of gender bias for promoting male colleagues ahead of her. The lawsuit hits on something many people believe and statistics support: venture capital is a boy’s club. Now all the arguments have closed, and the jury is in deliberation.
Nevertheless, some women are quietly dreading that after the Ellen Pao lawsuit, venture capital firms might take even fewer chances hiring women in the future.
According to Fortune Magazine, it’s being called “one of the nastiest things” being whispered about the Ellen Pao case. Will venture capital firms want to risk hiring a woman for a high-level position in the future?
Pao’s lawyers allege that their client lost $16 million in future salaries and bonuses. Add on some punitive damages — which increases the amount nine-fold — and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB) stands to lose $144 million, according to Tech Crunch.
That’s not an existential threat for the lucrative tech investment firm, but it’s certainly enough to sting. What might be even worse is the damage to the firm’s reputation and what was likely an exhausting effort to fight the Pao lawsuit.
Put it all together, and women suddenly become a substantial risk in the subconscious mind of a male at a VC firm.
Two writers for the tech blog Re/code, Nellie Bowles and Liz Gannes, report they already hear the whispers and stories. One woman went to Twitter to say she’s heard straight from the source.
— Erika Brown Ekiel (@ebekiel) March 5, 2015
It’s important to remember that venture capital is already dominated by men, and Ellen Pao’s firm KPCB was arguably one of the good guys on gender diversity. Fortune reports that only 4 percent of senior-level venture capitalists are women. Likewise, 77 to 79 percent of VC firms never had a woman represent them on the board of one of their companies — KPCB actually has 10 women in such a position.
As the Washington Post explained, experts in the field tend to think the best start for people going into VC is to be a “successful entrepreneur” who navigated the world of seeking out investors. Unfortunately for women, it’s difficult to get venture funding because they often don’t look the part. That means discrimination is subtle and starts at an early stage, well before the job interview.
Ellen Pao‘s case potentially adds to that subtle obstacle already facing women.
Naturally, the whispers and rumors are damaging to the justice system. The idea that women as a whole will be damaged by a lawsuit undermines the entire purpose of discrimination laws, despite the harsh realities. How can women fight for an equal footing with men, if defending themselves leaves them with no footing at all?
Professor of Civil Engineering Elahe Enssani believes that lawsuits are simply not the way to affect change, according to Re/code.
“I’m really worried that this case will make people subconsciously not hire women because they’re worried if they don’t perform, they will say it’s because they are women.”
She watched the Ellen Pao trial in person a number of times, before eventually siding with KPCB.
Of course, the opposite problem also exists. Women might not want to even go into venture capital or tech after hearing what Ellen Pao went through, even with a male mentor, John Doerr.
Ellen Pao can’t be blamed for attracting so much attention to the issue with her lawsuit, but now it seems like more is riding on the outcome than just a few millions of dollars.
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