Ellen Pao’s Gender Discrimination Suit and the Implications for Nonprofits

March 27, 2015; BuzzFeed

What’s the connection between the Ellen Pao/Kleiner Perkins lawsuit and the nonprofit sector? It’s not obvious, but a little digging reveals nuggets of information.

Pao lost her suit, which alleged that she had been a victim of gender discrimination and retaliation at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm. Kleiner Perkins won the jury trial, but Silicon Valley sexism seems to have suffered a blow in the court of public opinion.

To start, note that Kleiner Perkins, though a VC firm, has been a prominent backer of many high-tech business ventures, notably putting early critical money behind the fledgling Google and Amazon enterprises. The firm’s close connection with the high-tech Silicon Valley world makes the Pao case much closer to a review of Silicon Valley/high-tech sector treatment of women in the workplace. In the wake of the Pao trial, gender lawsuits were filed against Facebook (by Chia Hong) and Twitter (from Tina Huang).

The debate over whether gender discrimination might have been the reason Pao didn’t get promoted at Kleiner Perkins continues. Regardless of the court’s decision on the specifics of Pao’s allegations of gender discrimination directed personally at her, the statements and practices of Kleiner Perkins bigwigs and others at the firm may have reflected a kind of “soft discrimination” that permeates much of society in Silicon Valley and beyond.

For example, Annie Lowery writing for New York magazine quotes one statement by John Doerr, the Kleiner Perkins hotshot who was purportedly Pao’s champion in the firm:

“‘If you take the founders of Amazon, Google, and Netscape,’ he said, ‘They all seem to be white, male nerds who’ve dropped out of Harvard or Stanford and they absolutely have no social life. So when I see that pattern coming in—which was true of Google—it was very easy to decide to invest.’”

That statement might reveal something of the Silicon Valley culture that works against Pao and other women in the high-tech industry.

Other indications of sexual discrimination at the Kleiner Perkins firm included ski trips that excluded women from the firm and, our favorite, the seating of women at the back of conference rooms during meetings. Why is that our favorite? Because in Washington public policy circles, even among some of the more well known nonprofit advocacy organizations, we’ve seen the placement of participants around the conference table—men usually at the table, and women generally in an outer circle. It’s not just Silicon Valley, folks. And it wasn’t just ski trips. For example, there was a dinner that the firm held for Kleiner Perkins friend and advisor Al Gore (the former Vice President is listed as a member of the Kleiner Perkins “green growth” team) that was men-only as well. When Pao spoke out within Kleiner Perkins about these inequities, she contends she was punished professionally.

Pao, we assume, simply couldn’t convince the jury that her position in Kleiner Perkins was the result of intentional gender discrimination directed at her. But the statistics on women’s employment in Silicon Valley suggest something is happening that’s more along the lines of Doerr’s idea that geeky white men are seen as making good investment targets in the high-tech business world—and maybe even in the VC world too.

A Babson College study cited in the Daily Mail suggests that women constitute only six percent of the workforce in VC firms, down from 10 percent in 1999. A study published last year indicated that only 4.2 percent of 542 partner-level VCs were women. The proportion of computing professionals who are women was down to 26 percent in 2013, roughly the same as it was in 1960. Women are down to about 12 percent of working engineers.

There might be some connection here to issues in the nonprofit world, where men still dominate the high-salary, top-level positions at large nonprofits. Moreover, the high-tech sector has increasing influence over the nonprofit and philanthropic sector. Doerr, for example, has been a big giver to charitable causes, frequently connected to charter school-friendly organizations and, as we noted some years ago, to the private school that educated his daughters. He is a very influential player in political and nonprofit circles, serving or having served on the boards of such places as the Aspen Institute, the One Campaign, and the New Schools Venture Fund. That adds up to plenty of circumstances where his nonprofit board peers could bug him about doing more to push for changes in his firm and in the high tech industry he knows so well, regardless of the Pao jury verdict.

Others among the superwealthy on the Kleiner Perkins team are engaged in the nonprofit sector. KPCB’s Ted Schlein is a board member at the Students First Foundation, which has been helping finance the Vergara case in California (with the help of $500,000 from the Walton Family Foundation in 2013) to challenge teacher tenure. Like Doerr, Kleiner Perkins cofounder Brook Byers is on the board of the New Schools Venture Fund and sits on the board of the University of California at San Francisco Foundation.

The next time you’re at a nonprofit meeting with some of the guys from the Kleiner Perkins crowd, you might want to ask them what they are doing concretely to rid their own firm of gender discrimination in any form and what they are doing to change the “geeky white men” culture of the Silicon Valley.—Rick Cohen