BUSINESS Technology

Silicon Valley gender-bias suit: What you should know and what it means for women in tech

Reddit interim CEO Ellen Pao is suing her former employer, venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, in a sex-discrimination trial being closely watched in Silicon Valley and nationwide. Here are the basics on the lawsuit and what it could mean for women in the male-dominated tech sector.

What does the lawsuit claim?

Pao was a former junior partner at the firm, and was fired in October 2012, five months after she filed the lawsuit. She says she was passed over for promotions because she is a woman, and that the firm fired her in retaliation after she filed the lawsuit.

Among the claims made by Pao’s lawsuit are that female partners were excluded from parties at former Vice President Al Gore’s house because, as one employee told her, they “kill the buzz,” and that a married male partner gave Pao a book containing sexual poetry. She also claimed that female executives were asked to take notes at meetings like secretaries, and that she was subjected to colleagues’ discussion of pornography on a private plane.

Menlo Park-based Kleiner Perkins, founded in 1972 and known for being at the forefront of investments in technology, biotech and green-energy industries, has denied the sex-discrimination claims, painting Pao as an unlikeable, under-performing employee who is hunting for a big payout.

The firm’s attorneys have argued that her claims are “simply a continuation of Ellen Pao’s attempts to blame others for her own failings.”

The jury is being asked to rule on four claims: that Kleiner Perkins discriminated against Pao because of gender; that it retaliated against her by failing to promote her; that it failed to take reasonable steps to prevent gender discrimination against her; and that it retaliated against her by firing her.

How much could Pao win if the jury finds in her favor?

She’s seeking $16 million in lost wages and bonuses, plus an undisclosed amount in punitive damages. In a ruling last week, the judge hearing the case allowed Pao’s claim seeking punitive damages to go forward, meaning her payout could top $100 million if the jury determines the company acted with malice. Punitive damages, when awarded, are often much higher than compensatory damages for financial losses.

What impact has Pao’s lawsuit had?Full story

Win or lose, some industry insiders say the lawsuit, filed three years ago, has drawn attention to the issue of gender equality in technology firms and brought a renewed focus on diversity in hiring.

More gender-discrimination suits against big tech firms are expected to follow Pao’s. Some, including suits against Facebook and Twitter, have already been filed. Former Facebook employee Chia Hong filed a lawsuit claiming that executives of the social media giant treated her differently because of her gender and race, “regularly ignoring or belittling” her input and “asking her why she did not stay at home and take care of her children instead of pursuing a career.”

What are some of the major issues facing women in the technology sector? Full story

Women in tech have long complained about an uneven playing field, including receiving lower pay for equal work, being passed over for promotions, and being exposed to a hostile “brogrammer” culture that’s prompted many to leave.

A Harvard Business Review study from 2008 found that as many as half of all women working in science, engineering and technology will leave over time due to hostile working environments.

According to the study, reasons included a "hostile" male culture, a sense of isolation and lack of a clear career path. An updated study in 2014 found that the reasons hadn't significantly changed. Women in the study said the attitudes they felt held them back were subtle, and therefore harder to challenge.

In 2014, figures released by Google, Facebook, Apple and other big tech companies revealed that men outnumber women by a ratio of 4 to 1 or more in the firms’ technical sectors, such as programming.

What is the situation at individual tech companies?

Google’s engineering workforce is 17% female, according to figures released last summer. In 2013, the company started a training program with the goal of fighting cultural biases. After the company’s data showed women were promoted less than men because workers need to nominate themselves, it found that women can get pushback for what’s deemed “aggressive” behavior. The company began holding workshops to coach men and women on how to promote themselves effectively.

Pinterest, whose technical team is 21% female, created an engineering promotion committee that aims to ensure that issues such as gender, race, and ethnicity don’t get in the way of advancement at the company.

Facebook’s technical workforce is 15% female. The company holds a companywide leadership day for female employees that includes workshops and support groups. Facebook also offers four months of paid maternity and paternity leave.

Apple's global engineering workforce is 20% female.

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