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Silicon Valley sexism on trial, with top firms in the firing line

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez March 23, 2015
Twitter, Facebook and one of Silicon Valley's top VC firms are facing legal action from female employees that claim that they have faced gender discrimination.

Three darlings of Silicon Valley - Facebook, Twitter and VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers – are in the spotlight this week, facing less than desirable claims from ex-employees, who state that the firms operate in a way that favours male employees over their female counterparts.

I've written about this topic in the past, arguing that sexism is rife in the technology industry, and stating that if we want to progress to a point where gender bias is no longer an issue, then we need to fundamentally rethink the corporate structures within which we typically operate.

Things like flexible working, child care support, maternity leave and promoting women all need to be reconsidered. For example, I've suggested that perhaps it would be beneficial to firms and their employees if maternity leave could be distributed between two parents however they see fit, which may take some of the pressure off of women to be at home for a short amount of time after giving birth. It may also put some of the pressure on men.

Some strongly disagree with quotas, but I don't necessarily think targets are a bad thing.

Claims of sexism in Silicon Valley are well documented, but the three law suits in question are particularly high profile and will likely bring the topic to the fore again. This is especially true for the legal claims against Facebook and Twitter, considering these are relatively new companies that claim to be progressive and should be appealing to a new generation of employees.

However, the VC firm Kleiner Perkins is likely to receive the most attention as the case heads for its closing arguments today, after four weeks of testimony. The case has forced Kleiner Perkins, which has backed the likes of Amazon and Google, to air details about a male partner using work trips to allegedly make advances on female colleagues.

Ellen Pao, now chief executive of Reddit, brought the claims to the courts and she has argued that she missed out on promotions during her time at the VC firm because she was female. Pao also claims that she was dismissed after raising the complaints internally.

Kleiner Perkins argues that Pao was dismissed because of poor performance.

It has also emerged that Pao did have an affair with a male partner at the firm, who has since been fired for separate sexual harassment claims.

But Judge Harold Kahn has suggested that Pao has a strong suit against the VC firm. He said:

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There is sufficient evidence from which a reasonable juror could find, as to Ms Pao's claims for gender discrimination and retaliation, that Kleiner Perkins acted with malice, fraud or oppression.

"There is sufficient evidence from which a reasonable juror could conclude that Kleiner Perkins engaged in intentional gender discrimination by failing to promote Ms Pao and terminating her employment, and that Kleiner Perkins attempted to hide its illegal conduct by offering knowingly false and pretexual explanations for its decisions not to promote Ms Pao and to terminate her employment.

However, Kleiner Perkins denies all of the claims and presented evidence that Pao wasn't promoted because of her poor performance, rather than her being female. It also argued that it goes out of its way to promote women.

Separately, last week, former Facebook employee Chia Hong also filed a suit against the social networking giant, claiming that it was a “hostile working environment” and that she was dismissed after complaining about being discriminated against by her bosses because of her gender and race.

Facebook has denied the allegations.

Similarly, Twitter has also received a lawsuit from former employee Tina Huang, a software engineer who claims that the social network has an informal promotion process that favours male employees over females.

Huang emailed Twitter CEO Dick Costolo with her complaints, but claims that doing so derailed her career. Court documents state:

Ms Huang’s career at Twitter was irreparably derailed for making a complaint. After three months without explanation as to the status of the investigation, or mention of any possible time-frame for her return to work, she felt she had no choice but to leave the company for the sake of her career.

Twitter also denies the allegations against it.

My take

This is all very embarrassing for Silicon Valley (although, let's remember that the problem is certainly not isolated to this area).

The BBC has also been following these cases and quoted California-based investor and entrepreneur Eric Ries, who summed up the problem perfectly. He claims that the gender bias is unintentional – but unintentional or not, I'd argue that this is no excuse. Patterns of sexism, basically 'broculture', need to be addressed head on. He said:

Our business operates on pattern recognition. They look at patterns of what has succeeded in the

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past and they try to identify those patterns in the future.

So everyone wants to invest in the next Mark Zuckerberg... the problem comes when you're doing pattern recognition you're using unconscious selection... that's, I think, where you see the sex [and other forms of] discrimination.

"Silicon Valley aspires to be a meritocracy so we have a culture that values outsiders and the perspectives they bring, and there is this idea that good ideas can come from anywhere... that's our aspiration but the reality is in many ways we fall short.

Many will point to the female CEOs in the tech industry and claim that this is evidence that gender bias no longer exists. That's just not the case. Sexism is rife. But we aren't going to overcome it unless we address the decade-old structures that exist that support and allow for such discrimination to exist. Until then, we can expect more of these court cases to spring up over the next few years.

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