Tuesday 19 September 2017

Silicon Valley sex discrimination case to lay bare ‘Wolf of Wall Street culture" of tech industry

Ellen Pao
Ellen Pao

Josie Ensor

A court case which promises to lay bare the “Wolf of Wall Street” boys’ club culture of Silicon Valley is set to open today between one of America’s most powerful venture capital firms and a female former partner.

Ellen Pao, 45, who until 2012 worked at Kleiner, Perkins, Caulfield & Byers, is suing her former employer for sex discrimination, claiming they routinely withheld raises and promotions from female staff and excluded them from company dinners as women “kill the buzz”.

Ms Pao is seeking $16 million (£10 million) in back pay and future wage losses based on her accusations of years of sexual harassment and discrimination at the firm.

She accuses the Menlo Park-based company, which was an early investor in Google, Amazon, AOL, as well as a long-list of other successful technology companies, of creating an environment where female staff members were urged not to complain.

She claims she was pressured into having sex with a senior and influential married colleague. After she ended the brief relationship, Ms Pao claims he pursued her for five years.

Having rejected him, the court documents say she endured years of harassment by the partner, which the firm effectively turned a blind eye to.

She claims she was subsequently excluded from important meetings, as well as email chains between other partners and company dinners because women “kill the buzz”, according to the lawsuit.

She was fired from the company in 2012, six months after she filed the lawsuit. Ms Pao, who is now the CEO of popular microblogging site Reddit, claims she was pushed out over her discrimination complaints.

The firm counters that she was let go because of frequent clashes with colleagues and because of poor performance.

Ms Pao graduated from Princeton University with a degree in electrical engineering, later studing at Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School.

Before being hired at Kleiner Perkins in 2005, she worked at a number of technology companies, including Microsoft.

Kleiner Perkins has denied the accusations of discrimination and retaliation, along with accusations that it did not take reasonable steps to prevent discrimination.

The case, which will be heard at the Superior Court in San Francisco, has rattled Silicon Valley - in part because of Kleiner Perkins’ high profile - and sparked a debate about gender in the industry.

“This case is a wakeup call,” said Stanford University law professor Deborah Rhode, who teaches gender equity law. “The case has sparked a much-needed debate about gender inequality regardless of its merit.”

A much-cited recent piece in Newsweek magazine likened the culture of Silicon Valley to a modern-day Wolf on Wall Street boys’ club.

It is the latest case of its kind to hit the Valley. Last year, dating app Tinder settled out of court after a female former employee and ex-girlfriend of the firm’s co-founder accused him of firing her as he said having a woman on a board “makes the company seem like a joke.”

Women represent under 30 per cent of the workforce at tech companies, such as Google, Apple and Facebook, which drops to 14 per cent at executive level.

Venture capital firms are even more slanted toward men, with women making up just 11 per cent of investors.

The case, which will be heard by a jury of seven women and five men, is set to last for four weeks.


Also in Business