California, Labor / Employment, Sexism, Silicon Valley, Technology, Women's Issues

High-Profile Sex Discrimination Suit Shines Ugly Light on Silicon Valley ‘Bro Culture’

Not cool, bro.

Californians tend to be quite protective of the state’s reputation as a progressive paradise. Where equality is important for everyone, no matter your race, gender, sexual orientation, whatever. Where organic food is simply better, no matter how much it costs. Where the earthquakes are a fine price to pay for an entire year of temperate weather.

So, when the New York Times ran an extensive article this weekend about an accomplished female attorney who sued the major venture capital firm where she is a partner for sex discrimination, it puts a real fly in the state’s — and specifically the tech industry’s — collective ointment.

The Times’s extensive story concerns Ellen Pao, a graduate of Harvard Law School and a former associate at Cravath. She has sued Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a major VC firm.

Let’s take a look at the specifics of the suit, as well as what it might mean for attorneys who work within the emerging “brogrammer” culture in Silicon Valley…

The New York Times article is quite long, and it is worth reading all the way through. For context, Kleiner Perkins is a veteran venture capital firm that helped finance Netscape, Genentech, Amazon, and Google back in the day. It is also a unique outfit because it it has made a concerted effort to hire more women. More than a quarter of its 50 partners are female, which is unusual in Silicon Valley.

But, with the revelation of Pao’s suit, all may not be what it seems. From the Times:

According to the suit, her troubles began almost immediately when another junior partner, Ajit Nazre, made inappropriate sexual advances. Eventually, the complaint says, Ms. Pao “succumbed to Mr. Nazre’s insistence on sexual relations on two or three occasions.” When she put an end to the relationship, it says, he “started a consistent pattern of retaliation against her.” This went on for five years, it contends.

[T]he retaliation part [of the suit]… blends into an allegation of a general effort to keep women in their place. Kleiner, Ms. Pao’s lawsuit says, discriminated against her and other women “by failing to promote them comparably to men, by compensating them less than men through lower salary, bonus and carried interest, by restricting the number of investments that women are allowed to make as compared to men.”

The firm, which has about 80 employees here with a handful more in China, is accused of failing to act when complaints of sexual harassment or discrimination were made. Ms. Pao says women are excluded from meetings and discussions. The firm fails to provide opportunities for visibility and success inside and outside the firm for women as compared with men, the complaint says.

The Times also highlights this section of the complaint:

That fact fits awkwardly with the lawsuit’s claim that one male executive, Randy Komisar, told Ms. Pao that women would never succeed at Kleiner “because women are quiet.” Another male executive, Chi-Hua Chien, is quoted in the suit saying women were not being invited to a big-deal dinner because they would “kill the buzz.”

Pao filed her suit early last month, but it took a while for the media to take notice. You can see her entire complaint, filed May 10 in San Francisco Superior Court, over here (via Scribd).

It will be interesting to see where the suit goes, but it exposes another divisive issue that has been bubbling around for a few months now: the problem of “brogrammer” culture in Silicon Valley.

According to several quotes from the Times, the lawsuit has rattled the local tech industry pretty badly. But if other recent media reports are to be taken at face value, it seems like it may only be a matter of time until more follow.

Let’s keep reading other recent “brogrammer” coverage, and what it might mean for attorneys in Silicon Valley. Is it only a matter of time until startups have to start begging, “Don’t sue me, bro BB!”

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