Last week, in one of the highest profile gender-discrimination
lawsuits to come out of Silicon Valley, Ellen Pao lost her case against venture
capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers — Pao's former employer. The firm had failed to promote Pao and eventually fired her; she claims this was the result of gender
Venture capitalists, the typical investors in early-stage tech companies,
are predominantly male (according to research from Babson College, the field is just 6% female — down from 10% in
1999). And, they invest in mostly male companies: Just 15% of startups that
received VC funding from 2011 to 2013 had a woman on the executive team. Many point to gender bias in the venture capital sector as one
of the main reasons tech culture remains male-dominated.
Pao may have lost in court, but Barbara Clarke, an angel
investor and founding member of Astia Angels NYC, which funds women-led
startups, says she is grateful to Pao for pushing forward with the case, even though
she wasn’t surprised by the verdict. “Anita Hill's testimony almost 20 years
ago didn't keep Clarence Thomas from becoming a Supreme Court Justice, but it
did change the way men treated me in the office as a young, recent graduate. So,
losing in court doesn't mean that we have lost,” Clarke says.
Venture investor (and tech executive at Fortis Partners) Sarah Kunst points out that the case is much bigger than one person's job. “The
Ellen Pao trial pulled back the curtain on the inner workings of venture
capital funds and put details to the data points that were already well known," she explains. "Women and minorities are vastly underrepresented in venture capital and
Allyson Kapin, the founder of Women Who Tech (a telesummit for women in technology), says the Pao case is representative of what many women experience while working in the Valley. That’s why she isn’t sitting around waiting for things to
change. Kapin says she's "seeing more women launch startups than ever before" — even though they’re not getting funded by investors. "This is one of the reasons
why we just launched the first-ever Women Startup Challenge: to help fund women-led
startups, as the investor world is not," she adds.
While the Pao case was a landmark one, J. Kelly Hoey, an investor and startup advisor
in New York, is hesitant to say whether the trial represents any major cultural
change for venture capital. “Time will tell what the effect of the case is,” Hoey says.
“Having dodged the punitive-damages bullet, it could be back to business as
usual in the short-term.” However, she adds that the case does represent a shift in
tech — now that “women are openly discussing gender discrimination and calling out
inappropriate behavior.” And, everyone seems to agree there's value in that.