Working for Justice

Ellen Pao and the Jacobs Ladder of Gender Equity

In the midst of the Ellen Pao trial, much chatter has erupted on gender politics in the tech industry. Ellen Pao, a former junior partner at the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, is suing her former employer for gender discrimination. Among Ms. Pao’s claims is an allegation that Kliener failed to promote her to top positions, instead of promoting less-qualified men over her.  Ms. Pao, who never made it to senior partner, is seeking $16 million in damages, in part to replace the income she says she should have had a chance to make while at Kliener.

Whether the jury will decide that Kleiner discriminated in its promotion decisions concerning Ms. Pao and her male colleagues remains to be seen.  However, unsurprisingly, Ms. Pao’s promotion claims match statistical analysis of women in leadership positions in corporate America generally. When it comes to female membership on company boards in the United States, the Washington Post recently reported that the percentage is somewhere around 16 to 19 percent, depending on who is doing the counting and how. Worse yet, women’s representation in various parts of business seems slow to change.  Not surprisingly, Fortune magazine found the number of successful female venture capitalists specifically has increased in 2014 by exactly one. And according to a report published this month by Ernst & Young, the proportion of women on corporate boards has increased only 5 percentage points over the last 10 years.

The Ernst & Young report, in particular, has garnered significant attention, especially for its finding that fewer companies are run by women than by men named John (no joke). However, more surprising, at least to me, was the hidden gem that women are much more likely to serve on multiple company boards than their male counterparts. This means that the number of actual women serving in corporate leadership positions is even smaller than the statistics suggest since the same women are occupying spots on multiple boards.

In light of these statistics, the importance of Ellen Pao’s trial cannot be underestimated. It offers a rare glimpse into the gender politics of leadership positions in the tech industry and stands to significantly influence how the tech world responds to gender issues moving forward. However, the Ernst & Young report also serves as an important reminder that, unlike the few women who managed to climb the corporate latter, Ellen Pao’s trial cannot stand alone. It is but one step, albeit an important one, in the long ascent towards a more gender equitable playing field.

Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP

Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP

Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP is a nationwide litigation law firm with offices in New York, Washington, DC, San Francisco, San Diego, Nashville, and Baltimore. We represent individuals against powerful interests. We act as a private attorney general in support of the private and public good. Learn More

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