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Ellen Pao Trial Highlights Long Road To Ending Workplace Bias


A jury of six men and six women are now deliberating the highest-profile gender discrimination case that Silicon Valley has ever seen. The case could have wide repercussions in the tech and venture capital industries. Ellen Pao sued her former employer, Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, for $16 million in damages for gender discrimination. Kleiner Perkins is one of the best-known venture capital firms in Silicon Valley. Nitasha Tiku has been covering the trial for the tech news website The Verge. Nitasha, welcome to the program.

NITASHA TIKU: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: All right, so this became an incredibly complex trial, and I want to start with the basics. What exactly did Ellen Pao claim in her lawsuit?

TIKU: She has four claims - the first is for gender discrimination. She says that she wasn't promoted to senior partner because she was a woman whereas three of her male colleagues, who are, in her words, less qualified, were. And then she says that she was retaliated against by Kleiner Perkins for complaining about gender issues and bias in the workplace. After that, her next claim is that they failed to prevent this retaliation. They didn't put the policies in place that they needed to make sure this doesn't happen to her or to other people. And lastly, it involves the lawsuit itself because she says she was fired because of the lawsuit.

CORNISH: So help us better understand this culture, right? I mean, what are the - how does that play out in terms of the evidence she presented?

TIKU: She presented a number of events she was excluded from, she claims, because she was a woman. There were dinners at Al Gore's house. He is actually a partner at Kleiner Perkins. They invest in green technology. As you know, he invented the Internet. So there was also an all-male ski trip. In that case, there was actual email evidence that it was suggested that some women be invited, and they said oh, well, it might be difficult for the women to stay at the same place so let's "punt" on this, quote, unquote, "punt" and invite two awesome guys and we'll do this next year. And of course, they didn't have the ski event next year. And I think that that email was incredibly helpful because the other event that they had that seemed very damning was that the same person who set up the ski trip said women kill the buzz, apparently in a meeting with a lot of people, but no one remembers it besides Ellen Pao.

CORNISH: So how did the defense answer those claims?

TIKU: Well, they showed that there was another Al Gore dinner where women were invited - just made it sound like she insisted on being included in everything, and no other partner would demand that. I think that their central tenet, though, is just that she was a poor performer.

CORNISH: Now, Nitasha, people are not paying attention to this case just because it seems sort of, like, gossipy, right, and full of intrigue. I mean, we should note that since the trial started new discrimination and harassment lawsuits have been filed against Facebook and Twitter. Is there any sense that this case Ellen Pao has brought has kind of broader consequences, right? Are people looking at it and being worried about their own shops?

TIKU: Yes, certainly. I think it is a little bit to be determined. I mean, when Ellen Pao first filed this case in 2012 no one thought it would go to court. People were even surprised that the complaint came out, and now in the past couple weeks we've seen a class action lawsuit against Twitter, which could be a very big deal.

CORNISH: You've been writing that equal rights advocates have been waiting for a lawsuit to kind of bring out into the open the gender bias in Silicon Valley. But you questioned whether this case was the one to do it.

TIKU: I mean, I think that it's exhilarating that she filed this lawsuit and that we are able to get so much information. But I think a lot of it is just how you interpret these things. I mean, it's about the subtle sexism in the workplace, you know, maybe even unconscious bias. So that's where I think that people who are looking for a big win, for a definitive statement about sexism in Silicon Valley, aren't going to get it with this trial just because it's so particular to her situation. But that doesn't mean that this isn't progress and this isn't, you know, a potentially different era.

CORNISH: Well, Nitasha Tiku, thank you so much for explaining it to us.

TIKU: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: That's Nitasha Tiku. She's senior writer for The Verge. She's been covering the trial of Ellen Pao. Ellen Pao sued a Silicon Valley venture capital firm for gender discrimination. A decision in the case is expected any day now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.