Silicon Valley is enamored of “disrupters,” those shrewd, brave men — it is almost always men — who are hailed for enduring years of ridicule and risking everything to shake up the conventional order.
Now, in Ellen Pao, the Valley has found its newest disrupter. And the conventional order she has shaken up concerns the Valley itself and the clubby way of doing things in a place that fancies itself the emerging center of the world.
Often, Silicon Valley’s disrupters do not succeed on the terms they initially envision. So it was on Friday when a jury decided that Ms. Pao’s claims of gender discrimination against the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers were without merit.
But while the verdict is a defeat for Ms. Pao, a former junior investing partner at the firm who stood to win potentially tens of millions in damages if she prevailed, the trial has nevertheless accomplished something improbable.
Not only have weeks of testimony revealed a collection of boorish, unsavory and at times unwittingly misogynist attitudes at one of the tech industry’s most storied financial institutions, the case has also come to stand for something bigger than itself. It has blown open a conversation about the status of women in an industry that, for all its talk of transparency and progress, has always been buttoned up about its shortcomings.
Thanks to Ms. Pao, and notwithstanding the jury’s verdict, the secrets are suddenly out in the open. In tweets, in text messages and at tech gatherings like TED and South by Southwest, the case has been virtually all that anyone could talk about during the last few weeks.
“To say that it is a frequent topic of conversation would be an understatement,” said Freada Kapor Klein, a partner at the Kapor Center for Social Impact. “It has been a constant topic of conversation here amongst people beyond the usual suspects — beyond the group of people who talk about diversity efforts in tech start-ups.”
The floodgates may already be creaking open. After the Pao testimony, former employees of Facebook and of Twitter have filed gender-discrimination suits against those companies, which have denied the accusations.
Ms. Klein argued that the Kleiner trial would become a landmark case for women in the workplace, as consequential for corporate gender relations as Anita Hill’s accusations in 1991 of sexual harassment during the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
In that case, too, the accuser did not prevail; Mr. Thomas, the man alleged to have sexually harassed Ms. Hill, was elevated to, and remains on, the Supreme Court. And yet, “In that case, what happened was a public discourse began about issues that people had previously wrestled with privately,” said Ms. Klein.
The Kleiner-Pao trial has prompted a similar discussion because the series of large and small slights that Ms. Pao contends she suffered at the hands of her male colleagues and bosses at Kleiner has resonated with women across the industry, and it has turned a light on problems that many men around here have long kept under wraps.
“Ellen’s experiences rang true,” Ms. Klein said. “They struck a chord.”
Ms. Pao is far from the first woman in the tech industry to allege discrimination in the workplace. But she has a résumé — with three Ivy League degrees and a string of executive jobs — that put her in a rarefied position.
As one of the few women admitted into the venture capital industry, she gained entree into an upper echelon where most women stay silent when they experience wrongdoing for fear of being shut out of the industry entirely.
As a consequence, though many women in the tech industry have stories similar to Ms. Pao’s, they are rarely heard from.
“What usually happens when you have something like this happen to you at work is that you negotiate a settlement with a gag order,” said Melinda Byerley, a marketing consultant who has worked in the tech industry for more than a decade. “They pay you to be quiet. This happens all over Silicon Valley — they will write you a severance agreement outlining X number of months’ salary, X number of shares, and along with that is a gag order.”
She added: “This is how women have been doing this for more than a decade. This is tribal knowledge. It’s shared from one woman to the next.” What made Ms. Pao’s story unusual, Ms. Byerley said, was her refusal to take the quiet settlement, despite the risks to her reputation and her career.
The particulars of Ms. Pao’s complaint also resonated. Documents in the case showed that one Kleiner partner, Chi-Hua Chien, arranged a ski trip for entrepreneurs from which women were excluded. When he was asked if a female entrepreneur from one of the companies Kleiner had invested in could come along, Mr. Chien responded in an email that because the trip involved shared accommodations, women probably wouldn’t feel comfortable.
“Why don’t we punt on her and find 2 guys who are awesome,” he wrote. “We can add 4-8 women next year.” There was no ski trip the next year.
Or there was the time Ms. Pao and another female partner were made to sit at the back of the room and not at the conference table during a meeting. Or the plane ride in which, Ms. Pao asserted, her male colleagues discussed pornography stars and assessed the attractiveness of Marissa Mayer, the chief executive of Yahoo.
The jury clearly found that none of this strayed into illegal territory.
But several women across the industry told me that when they listened to Ms. Pao’s case against Kleiner, they heard echoes of experiences they and others like them had seen in their own lives.
To several women in the industry, the most salient note in Ms. Pao’s complaint was her claim that there was a narrow band of behavior she was expected to adhere to at Kleiner. She was criticized both for being too timid and for being too aggressive, for speaking up too much and for not speaking up enough.
Worse, criticisms of her performance were vague and unspecific. In written evaluations by her peers and executives at Kleiner’s portfolio companies, Ms. Pao was often given high marks, but Kleiner partners testified that her failings were a more subtle failure of “chemistry.”
Just about every woman who has worked in Silicon Valley has dealt with the challenge of operating within these vague expectations of cultural compatibility. But some hold out hope that the trial will highlight the issue to the men who run the place.
“Many men in the Valley genuinely believe that their company is a meritocracy,” said Karen Catlin, a former software engineer and a former vice president of Adobe Systems. “They think that the gender problem is something that happens somewhere else. It’s my sincere hope that because Kleiner is so well known, they’ll see that this problem is not at the corner. It’s at the heartbeat. And after this, we’ll have a series of cautionary tales about what not to do going forward.”
An earlier version of this column gave an incorrect job title for Freada Kapor Klein of the Kapor Center for Social Impact. She is a partner, not the co-chairwoman.