Opinion: Media find sexism in the Ellen Pao case where the jury couldn’t

Ellen Pao leaves the San Francisco Superior Court Civic Center Courthouse with her attorney on March 27. A jury found no gender bias in her lawsuit against her former employer Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.
Ellen Pao leaves the San Francisco Superior Court Civic Center Courthouse with her attorney on March 27. A jury found no gender bias in her lawsuit against her former employer Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.
(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)
Guest Blogger

From the progressive media’s reaction to Ellen Pao’s “landmark” $16-million gender-bias lawsuit against her former employer, Silicon Valley venture capitalists Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, you’d think that Pao had won — instead of losing big time, as she actually did.

It took the jury just a few hours to find in favor of Kleiner on all four counts of Pao’s lawsuit after a trial that lasted nearly two months. In her suit seeking $16 million plus punitive damages, Pao had alleged that Kleiner Perkins had failed to promote her from junior to senior investment partner because she was a woman and had fired her in 2012 after she complained about sex discrimination at the firm.

Here, for example, is Claire Cain Miller insisting in an opinion column in the New York Times that the Pao case had taught Silicon Valley a lesson about changing its free-wheeling misogynist ways:


“Just as Anita Hill once helped shine a light on overt sexual harassment, Ms. Pao, in suing Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, might have done the same for subtle sexism. The trial was riveting in part because many women could relate to the slights described on the witness stand, like men interrupting women in meetings or assuming they were too preoccupied for a big role because they had children.”

Maybe so, but Miller seemed not to have read the front page of the New York Times, where staff writer David Streitfeld reported that a majority of the jurors believed that Kleiner actually fired Pao because she wasn’t doing her $560,000-a-year job very well:

“The jurors said in interviews they did not take on the role of ‘conscience of this community,’ as one of Ms. Pao’s lawyers had urged in the closing arguments. They focused on the facts at hand, and concluded it was Ms. Pao’s own performance that held her back....

“‘We were split there for a while,’ [a juror] said, adding that a key point was how Ms. Pao’s reviews at Kleiner deteriorated over time. He also said the witnesses for Kleiner, most of whom came from the firm, helped seal the case.”

But several commentators seem to prefer to go with the Anita Hill theme instead of with the facts. Here is Sean Elder at Newsweek, in an article titled “Is the Ellen Pao Trial Silicon Valley’s ‘Anita Hill Moment’?”: “Gender stereotyping, like racial stereotyping, isn’t pretty, but the pockets of resistance in the insular world of many startups may prove fierce.” Never mind that Pao, now interim chief executive of Reddit, had failed to prove that she had been a victim of gender stereotyping at Kleiner Perkins. According to Ars Technica, Kleiner Perkins “stands apart from all other [venture capital] firms as a leader in terms of the number of women on boards of portfolio companies.”

Annie Lowry of New York magazine admits that Pao couldn’t prove that sexism exists at Kleiner Perkins — but that’s because it’s “the sexism that you can’t quite prove.” Lowry writes:


“The problem is that sexism today very often is not overt. It’s subtle, and that makes it all the more difficult to identify and root out. It’s not your boss hitting on you and then demoting you to secretary when you spurn his advances. It’s your boss describing your assertiveness as too assertive, and suggesting you might be better suited for an operational role.”

Yes, it’s sexism so subtle that you can’t even tell whether it’s there or not. Perhaps the jury couldn’t tell whether it was there or not either — which may be why Pao lost her case.

Now I’m a woman, and as a woman, I found the Pao trial fascinating myself — mostly for what the New York Times’ Streitfeld called its “salacious details.” My favorite: “how Ms. Pao, before she was married, had dated a colleague for six months without ever realizing he was still living with his wife.”

There was also the “resentment” chart that Pao had compiled of colleagues she believed had “wronged her” and her complaint that her office wasn’t located in the “power corridor” at Kleiner Perkins. There was the (since-fired) senior partner who showed up at the hotel-room doors of female junior partners wearing only a bathrobe. And there was Pao’s husband, Alphonse Fletcher Jr., a Wall Street financier about whom allegations of fraud have been swirling after his hedge fund went bankrupt.

Now, that’s the sort of stuff that keeps “many women” riveted to a TV screen.

Charlotte Allen writes frequently about feminism, politics and religion. Follow her on Twitter @MeanCharlotte

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