Silicon Valley has faced some crises in its day. I’ve written several times about the wide-ranging anti-poaching lawsuits filed against the likes of Apple, Google, Intel, Disney and others – and those are important cases – but there’s a new kid in town, and it’s got a lot of people worried. Gender discrimination – illegally favoring one gender over the other – is at the heart of three lawsuits making headlines across the world. And all three lawsuits have been filed against Silicon Valley companies.
First, the big one. Ellen Pao is suing her former employer, the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, for gender discrimination. The suit claims that the company promotes male junior partners over women and even overlooked Pao for a board seat because she was pregnant at the time. The suit further alleges Pao faced sexual harassment at the firm and that the general company culture – and system for dealing with discrimination complaints – is flawed. Pao also alleges the company failed to prevent workplace retaliation.
Pao is seeking $16 million in lost wages and, in a move that surprised many in the industry, the judge agreed that she can sue for punitive damages (additional compensation designed to punish the defendant), potentially raising the stakes to $100 million. This has helped make the lawsuit somewhat iconic even as it’s being fought.
A lot of commentators are seeing the lawsuit as an important battleground in an industry that doesn’t have the best reputation for hiring and promoting women. In a way, Silicon Valley’s existing culture is being put on trial and the idea that there’s a “boy’s club” is being demolished. Several large companies are reported to have reassessed their own culture and discrimination prevention policies – and the lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins has only just gone to trial.
It didn’t take long for other Silicon Valley companies to face lawsuits of their own. Twitter is now facing a lawsuit from a former employee, Tina Huang, who claims that technical and engineering roles in the company are advertised and filled using a “shoulder tap” process that allows existing management – mostly men – to favor male employees. Facebook faces similar accusations, with former staffer Chia Hong suing the company this month for gender and racial discrimination, as well as sexual harassment. Hong claims she was wrongfully fired after complaining about the alleged harassment and discrimination, and is represented by the same law firm representing Pao.
In all three lawsuits, successful, qualified women say they were treated unequally to their male coworkers. In all three lawsuits, the women ended up leaving the companies. The question is – were the companies really to blame?
This is a complicated issue, made more complicated by the fact that concrete proof of discrimination is hard to come by. In Hong’s case, her failure to receive a promotion despite the length of time working there could suggest she was passed over because of her gender. On the other hand, it could suggest that others were better at their jobs. In all three of these cases, the companies facing the suits deny the allegations and insist that the women left their jobs because of reasons unrelated to their gender. It will be up to the courts to decide if that’s the case – and, in Pao’s case, if the company acted maliciously or deliberately. While Pao’s lawsuit has already had a ripple effect on the industry, a judgment against Kleiner Perkins would be huge and could mean a lot of soul searching for the heart of America’s leading tech and finance companies.
They might not have to wait long. The jury in Pao’s lawsuit will now meet to deliberate, with a vote from nine of the twelve jurors required for a decision on each claim. The jury – fittingly – is made up of six men and six women.