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3 lingering questions after Ellen Pao's loss in Silicon Valley trial

After Ellen Pao trial, will male-dominated Silicon Valley change its ways?

A San Francisco County Superior Court jury has spoken in a case that riveted Silicon Valley, but that doesn't mean all's over.

In a verdict delivered Friday, a jury found that Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, one of the nation's most prominent venture capital firms, didn't discriminate against one its employees, Ellen Pao, and didn't fire her in retaliation for her protesting her treatment. The decision has left a number of uncertainties.

Will male-dominated Silicon Valley change its ways?

Not anytime soon, some fear.

“The outcome of the trial sends a message that women simply have to accommodate to such disappointing cultures,” said Bernice Ledbetter of the practitioner faculty of organizational theory and management at Pepperdine University.

But in the weeks leading up to the hearing of the case, some venture capitalists said the lawsuit put them on notice and that they were stepping up efforts to find ways to promote women. Only about 5% of decision-makers at venture-capital firms now are female, according to research firm PitchBook.

Chris Sacca, an angel investor in Uber and Instagram, said on Twitter Friday that the conversation about technology’s “deep gender discrimination problem” shouldn’t end with Pao’s loss.

Meantime, Google, Facebook, Intel and other big tech companies have acknowledged the low representation of women and minorities in engineering roles and are implementing programs that they hope will improve their records.

Will women now suing Twitter, Facebook and others lose hope?

“It’s got to look like a more difficult proposition,” said Debra Katz, an attorney at Katz, Marshall & Banks.

The dynamics of a venture capital firm, with small staffs often on the road, differ from big organizations with more human resource department attention on hiring and promotion, so the new batch of cases won’t be carbon copies. But legal experts said Pao’s loss certainly offers a bar for what a jury needs to see to find bias.

“We don’t know ... whether the claims that she underperformed are valid, but it does send a reminder to women: You'd better work hard and make sure everyone around you knows the quality of your work and make sure that quality is unquestionable,” Ledbetter said.

Even though Pao lost, the publicity of the trial could encourage more lawsuits. Felicia Medina, an employment attorney in San Francisco, said she had recently heard from at least 10 women in tech with discrimination or harassment complaints, a significant uptick for her office.  

What’s next for Ellen Pao?

Pao is the interim chief executive of Reddit, a popular online bulletin board. In one conversation thread on Reddit on Friday, anonymous users bashed Pao and said the company should get rid of her.

Attorneys who’ve worked gender suits and women who’ve followed such cases said Pao can expect more criticism in the weeks to come.

“I suspect there will be quite a backlash against her,” said Melinda Briana Epler, chief executive of ChangeCatalyst, a San Francisco organization that supports women entrepreneurs. “People are likely to talk more and more about the reasons why she didn’t win the trial and stuff about the speculation that she’s just not a likable person is likely to come out more and more.”

As for Pao herself, she said “Now it’s time for me to get back to my career, my family and my friends.”

Chat with me on Twitter @peard33

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