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Ellen Pao Is Following Anita Hill’s Example

How taking sexual discrimination claims public forces cultural change

AP Photo/Eric Risberg

Ellen Pao, current interim CEO of Reddit and former partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, lost her gender discrimination lawsuit against her previous employer late last week. The jury found in Kleiner’s favor in all four claims she brought against the firm.

That said, Pao’s case was never meant to just litigate the specific things she endured as a woman in the male-dominated world of tech. In exposing them this way, Pao may have become that world’s Anita Hill. Her testimony about sexism in the workplace may not have brought down her target in court, but it may spark cultural change.

The discrimination she described was less the butt slaps and sexual overtures of Hill’s era, which she spoke of at the confirmation hearing for now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. This wasn’t about men outright telling women to keep out of the annals of power in a blatantly sexist manner. It was about the more subtle, even unconscious barriers working women face today.

Pao spoke openly about how she sought to shine a spotlight on the bias that pervaded her workplace and, in turn, the supposed meritocracy of the industry. She told the jury that the firm  “was not going to change unless I pushed it” and she didn’t want to “let women be at risk and treated unfairly.” When asked by a juror why she didn’t opt to go through mediation instead of the trial, she responded, “I wanted an open courtroom where I could tell my story.”

What Pao described at Kleiner Perkins was a culture of different standards for men and women who worked at the firm. She says that women were asked to do the “office housework” of taking meeting notes. Much was made of her inability to “own the room” during meetings, getting criticized for not speaking up enough, but then was also being penalized for trying too hard to get ahead by demanding credit and jockeying for the right position. She says she was taking out of the running for a board position because she was on maternity leave and was told she had to “be one of the boys” to get ahead—and then the boys excluded the girls from things like client ski trips.

The firm still has no objective standards for what makes a good partner. That’s the type of environment that too easily lends itself to subjective criteria; white guys leading an organization like that, for instance, end up rewarding people who look like them. Pao says her requests for a formal human resources department and policies were rebuffed. When she filed her lawsuit, she says she was fired shortly thereafter.

This is what sexism at work often looks like today. Women aren’t necessarily told they aren’t allowed to have certain jobs; instead they’re told they’re too abrasive or pushy to be a good manager. Women aren’t always kept out of important meetings; they’re just constantly interrupted when they try to speak up. They’re allowed into a firm but then criticized based on their personalities, not their talents, when it comes time for performance reviews. They’re told they don’t get ahead because they don’t push hard enough but then end up penalized for being too aggressive.

Hill’s testimony detailed things we recoil from today as clearly inappropriate and even unlawful. She described Thomas’s tales of pornography he enjoyed watching, pubic hairs on soft drink cans, and the size of his own penis. As with Pao, her immediate goal wasn’t realized. Clarence Thomas was ultimately appointed to the Supreme Court while Hill’s reputation was put on trial by many of the Senators presiding over the hearing. Pao went through something similar; her character was also questioned at length by Kleiner’s lawyers and she put much of her professional reputation on the line by bringing the case.

Neither Hill nor Pao gained riches and glory for themselves by doing this. They just got to make people recognize what sexism in the workplace looks like. Sexual harassment was, on paper, against the law by the time Hill testified thanks to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. But it took the high-stakes airing of what Hill endured for other women to recognize that what they put up with was not something to be put up with any longer. Sexual harassment charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission more than doubled after her testimony. Hill not only laid bare the gross sexism that women faced at work but did so in the context of it being wrong and intolerable.

We still see the kind of overt sexism Hill described in cases like the one brought against the country’s largest jeweler last year, or even the suit brought against McDonald’s in January. But it has become far less common than in Hill’s day. In its place is a glass ceiling constructed of closed networks, unconscious bias, subtle jabs, and even good intentions gone wrong.

As is clear from the outcome of Pao’s case, this form of systemic sexism is even more difficult to prove. Many women today feel reconciled to just living with it—or, worse but perhaps even more common, have a hard time putting their finger on what went wrong and conclude it must be their fault. The line between what professional women have to do to succeed and what barriers emerge from others’ prejudices is too often blurry and impossible to discern when you’re the one trying to avoid or scale those barriers. Some of the things we’ve been asking ourselves: Did I fail to get promoted because the male bosses are inclined to see my ambition as unflattering aggression that they reward in men or am I just not asking for it in the right way? Are my ideas being overlooked because my manager encourages and rewards men who talk over me in meetings, or am I just not speaking up for myself enough?

Pao answered these questions by laying the blame at her employer’s feet. Her answer has already encouraged other women in her field to come to the same conclusion and take the same action. In the weeks while Pao’s lawsuit was at trial, Former Facebook employee Chia Hong brought a suit against the social media giant alleging that she was discriminated against for being a woman when told to spend more time at home with her kids, asked to organize office parties while no men were given such tasks, harassed, and then ultimately pushed out when she complained. Then just days later, Tina Huang filed a suit against Twitter alleging that the company uses a secretive, subjective promotions process that results in men getting moved ahead and women kept back.

These cases make the same statement that Pao’s did: The sexism may be subtle, but it is no less wrong. This, hopefully, will be the ultimate legacy of Pao’s lawsuit. We may put laws on the books protecting women’s right to equal treatment at work, but the laws must be tested, and the cultural status quo needs to be challenged until it changes. Additionally, women have to become aware of their rights and firms have to shift the way they view their responsibilities. As attorney Michelle Caiola has told me, “Whenever a sexual harassment lawsuit gets a lot of media attention...that’s what starts the cultural shift.” The same should now be true of the biases that block working women trying to climb up the ladder.

Pao isn’t the first woman to take on tech’s toxic masculinity. Last year, Whitney Wolfe sued her former cofounders at Tinder for allegedly edging her out and harassing her after a relationship with one of them went sour. But the media frenzy around Pao is what gives it its power.

It’s also not just about tech. Yes, it’s dominated by men—Facebook and Twitter, for example, have tech teams that are 85 percent and 90 percent male, respectively, and executive teams that are 77 percent and 79 percent male—but men still hold an inordinate amount of power in pretty much all of today’s workplaces. At the largest American companies, the very top is 75 percent male. For those numbers to budge, something big has to change. Laws can only get so far. The culture has to significantly shift, and it won’t do that until more women like Pao give it a hard shove.