Working for Justice

No anti-discrimination policy until late 2011? Silicon Valley tech companies have a long way to go

Posted March 19th, 2015 by in Employment Discrimination.

As my colleague Yonina wrote recently, Ellen Pao’s trial is well underway here in San Francisco. Ms. Pao, a former junior partner at the high-profile venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KCPB), is now suing KCPB for $16 million in damages as a result of the gender discrimination she alleges went unchecked at KCPB and led to her termination in 2012.

Not only is Ms. Pao’s case one of the most prominent gender discrimination lawsuits to ever make it to trial in Silicon Valley, but it also comes at a time when many have been discussing the distinct gender gap that continues to pervade the tech industry.  In the past few months, here are just a few of the articles that have been generating quite a bit of buzz in Silicon Valley:

  • Newsweek published a cover story about the lack of funding for women-run start-ups and highlighted the gender bias and harassment faced by many women who work in the tech industry;
  •  The New York Times ran a long, interactive piece about how the emergence of a booming tech industry exacerbated gender inequality for graduates of Stanford University’s 1994 class; and
  • A current female computer science major at Stanford University wrote an editorial for Fortune in which she described being “floored” by the sexism she has experienced both at Stanford and technical internships.
  • Last week, a female software developer tweeted that she had been sexually harassed while working at Google and that Google’s HR had done nothing.

None of this should be surprising, given the disturbing picture painted by the statistics on women who work in tech. As outlined here:

  • Only 20% of software developers are women;
  • Only 4.2% of investing venture capitalists are women;
  • Only 4.7% of venture capital funding goes to women-owned businesses;
  • Only 12% of computer science degrees were earned by women even though women earn 57% of all bachelor’s degrees

What is surprising is the fact that so little has been done within the tech industry to implement policies specifically designed to prevent and remedy gender discrimination in the workplace.  It came out last week, for example, that KCPB didn’t even have a discrimination and retaliation policy in late 2011 when it hired investigator Steve Hirschfeld, an attorney, to look into the allegations raised by Ms. Pao and another KCPB female partner, Trae Vassallo.  When Ms. Pao took the witness stand this past Monday, she also testified that KCPB didn’t adopt sexual harassment policies and training until 2012.

One consequence of having no discrimination or retaliation policy in place at KCPB was that senior partner Ray Lane recommended a misguided course of action to Ms. Pao when she first raised concerns regarding Ajit Nazre’s retaliatory behavior toward her after she had ended their brief romantic relationship.  Ms. Pao testified on Monday that Mr. Lane told her “not to make a mountain out of a molehill,” and described how he had met his wife at Oracle when he had been married to someone else, “and how it was wonderful, and maybe [she] could have that with Ajit.”  Mr. Lane then suggested that Miss Pao have a private lunch with Mr. Nazre so that they could work things out on their own which, of course, ended poorly.

I applaud women like Ms. Pao who have the courage to come forward and challenge gender discrimination in the tech industry.  As more women continue to come forward to shed light on their experiences, it is my hope that Silicon Valley companies will take note and do more to put in place the right policies and practices to ensure that women are not forced into pursuing a lawsuit as their only means of achieving change.

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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