Why The Ellen Pao Trial Matters To All Of Us

Photo: Bloomberg/Getty Images.
Late Friday afternoon, after weeks of testimonies, a San Francisco court ruled against Ellen Pao in a landmark gender discrimination case. Pao was suing her former employer, Silicon Valley VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, for not promoting her from junior partner to general partner based on her gender, and for being let go after writing a memo suggesting gender discrimination.

While women in the technology space have become more vocal about the biases, discrimination, and abuse they've experienced in their careers, Ellen Pao's case brought national, widespread attention to the issue. And while gender discrimination is a hot topic in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers, this case also has important ramifications for women working in almost any industry. 

Here's why.

The Case Is Drawing Huge Attention To Subtle Sexism
"For many people, I think this has sparked the first real conversation they've ever had about subtle sexism — the tiny, often unrealized acts that serve to ignore, exclude, shut down, or marginalize women, without the individual in question sometimes even realizing it," one female startup founder in New York City told Refinery29. 

This isn't unique to women in tech. Annie Lowrey describes a sample scenario in the Daily Intelligencer: "Cocktail Party Guy asks my husband about how things are going at his news site, and he answers. Then Cocktail Party Guy asks me how our dogs are, and I answer, before pivoting the conversation back to work — and later rolling my eyes as we walk away. It is not impolite. It is not inappropriate. But it is still, at least in my mind, sexist. Both me and my husband love our work. Both me and my husband love our dogs. One of us gets asked about our work. One of us gets asked about our dogs."

Both men and women are now realizing the seemingly small but nonetheless important moments of sexism in everyday life and in the media, and we're calling them out. 

Gender Bias Is Real & A Reason Women Are Leaving Their Jobs
The latest research, from a study out of UC Hastings, found that there are five main biases pushing women out of their jobs: They have to provide extra evidence of competence to prove themselves; they have to watch out for coming off as too masculine or too girly (or risk falling prey to stereotypes); their competence and dedication are questioned once they start a family; they need to remain isolated from colleagues to maintain competence; and they get misidentified as administrative or custodial staff (particularly a problem for black and Latina women). 

Ellen Pao's Experiences Are Widespread
One thing we've noticed among women following the trial: Ellen's loss was their loss, too. When the verdict was read late Friday, the loss wasn't just a headline — it felt personal. 

Nearly every woman we've met in the tech space has been subjected to at least one incident of sexism or discrimination. Pao's case is far from the first Silicon Valley harassment or discrimination suit. While the details of her case were unique to her situation, it's not a one-off scenario. Because of this, the results of the case are going to be remembered for years to come. 

Just Because She Lost Doesn't Mean It Wasn't Important To Bring Up
This is an important life lesson for all of us: Take chances and ask questions, even when there's a real chance the answer could be "no." This can be asking for a raise, suggesting you take on a new project or role at work, or calling out something inappropriate that's going on. 

"Were you discriminated against? You deserve solidarity, even if your case isn’t airtight. You did nothing wrong in speaking up," Bay Area writer Sarah Jeong wrote on Twitter. And, in the case of gender discrimination, current laws don't necessarily accurately reflect the intricacies of what's happening in the workplace. Pao's case could be a catalyst for a growing number of even stronger gender discrimination cases.

This Is A Call To Arms
"We need to step up. We need to do more. We need to form more of our own companies. We need to invest in each other," Fran Meier, founder of TRUSTe, told San Francisco PBS station KQED

It's important for women to continue the conversation, and be proactive both in networking and in the workplace. On Friday, Pao posted on Twitter, "If we do not share our stories and shine a light on inequities, things will not change." We've got to keep dismantling that glass ceiling together. 
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