Scandal in Silicon Valley: Why the Ellen Pao Suit Isn’t Helping Women in Tech

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Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

Ellen Pao

It’s not exactly news that women — particularly women in tech — are often underrepresented and underfunded in business. The stats speak for themselves: Just 3% to 5% of female entrepreneurs get venture-capital funds, and women are more likely to go into personal debt getting their businesses off the ground. And it’s something of an open secret that the West’s very own good ol’ boys club, Silicon Valley, can be an even unkinder place for the ladies.

It’s with this in mind that we were psyched to see the New York Times’s business-section cover over the weekend, which touted the cover story “Lawsuit Shakes Foundation of a Man’s World of Tech.” Foundation-shaking? Sure, we’ll take it. This is good. Or so we thought.

The story’s baffling lede, “Men invented the Internet,” has already been ripped to shreds (and rightfully so), so we’ll leave that alone. But while the silliness of the premise is worth pointing out, so is the underpinning of the entire story: a lawsuit that junior venture-capital partner Ellen Pao has filed against her firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

(MORE: The Real Reason Women Don’t Help Other Women at Work)

First, the basics: Pao, who began at Kleiner in 2005, alleges sexism at the hands of the higher-ups and claims that another junior partner, Ajit Nazre, retaliated against her following a consensual relationship between the two. Bizarrely, the affair began after an ongoing string of allegedly unwanted advances from Nazre — and Pao contends that she was subjected to five years of retaliation after their relationship concluded. The suit is all the more shocking because of Kleiner’s vaunted status in the tech scene; it’s not only a powerhouse firm but also a seemingly friendly environment for women. “The firm is one of the few exceptions to the venture world’s disinterest in hiring women,” the Times explains. “A quarter of its 50 partners are female.” A quarter. This is what passes for gender diversity. Moving on.

In its story, the Times argues that this lawsuit is emblematic of sexism in Silicon Valley’s venture-capital scene. But in reality, the lawsuit has several problems that make it a poor watershed moment for women in the tech world.

For starters, let’s take a look at the suit’s weak points, which the Times was all too happy to outline: How is it that no single senior staffer absorbed Pao’s complaints or did anything about them? Why did she stay on at the firm for five years if that was how she was being treated? And the Times asks, awkwardly, “How is it that you [Pao] can’t remember how many times you slept with someone who harassed you?” (In her suit, Pao wasn’t able to give the precise number of encounters she had during her brief affair.)

In its piece, the Times argues that the suit is a landmark moment for women, sexism and Silicon Valley. But it also paints it as so outlandish that you have to wonder if it’s even being taken seriously. The Times itself points out that “few lawsuits like this make it to a jury.” And while it hastily notes that “Ms. Pao’s case might be an exception,” it never explains why it might be an exception. And the story quotes a Silicon Valley source as saying, “Anybody can sue anybody for anything, right?” Doesn’t fill one with a lot of confidence, does it?

(MORE: Why We Need More Female Traders on Wall Street)

As Jezebel rightly points out, the big reason there aren’t a lot of women engineers is that there aren’t a lot of women engineers. Why not acknowledge that — instead of pinning our hopes to a lawsuit that’s so flimsy the Times is wondering whether it’ll even see a jury?

Sure, Pao’s story is getting people’s attention. And she deserves advocates if her claims are true. But the minutiae of her case (and its tenuous legal status) make it an odd one to single out for the cause. The sensationalism behind it — Silicon Valley’s golden firm! sex and intrigue! — overshadows what the Times calls its “cold stats”: women account for fewer than 10% of Silicon Valley company board seats, and just 11% of investing partners in venture-capital outfits are women. Why aren’t those numbers alone enough to get the story?

Amy Tennery is the managing editor of the Jane Dough, where this post originally appeared. Tennery previously edited business news site Mogulite and was a reporter for the Real Deal, a New York City real estate trade publication. Her work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Slate and other publications.

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