Ellen Pao lost her gender discrimination and retaliation suit against her former employer, venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, on Friday. But the trial succeeded on at least one major front: Everyone is talking about sexism in Silicon Valley now.
The tech press meticulously covered the proceedings — in some cases, with minute-to-minute live blogs. And mainstream newspapers and radio stations did near-blanket coverage, too. When the decision came down, cable news outlets were there to broadcast Pao's reaction.
It's easy to see why the "Paoparazzi," as Jeff Elder at the Wall Street Journal called reporters covering the trial, were there. The actors in the case were important even without going into the at-times salacious details of the alleged discrimination: A venture capital firm with huge influence over the tech industry and a plaintiff with a colorful personal life who now leads the social news-sharing site reddit.
But the conversation that was started by the trial wasn't just a rehash of the particulars from Pao's time at Kleiner Perkins. Instead, we're now in the midst of a dialogue about the structure of modern discrimination and how it plays out in the heart of a sector that defines so much of our future.
To be clear: This is a dialogue that has been happening in the tech industry and those who cover it for years. But despite a barrage of statistics from tech giants that show huge inequities, solutions have been few and far between. And the Pao trial highlighted some of the most troubling issues.
For instance, testimony from Pao's own ex-boss helped explain the vicious funding cycle that contributes to an uneven playing field for women in tech: Kleiner Perkins and other venture capital firms are the effective gatekeepers to the money that startups need to get off the ground, and the people who run them (and the investments they fund) are overwhelmingly male. But to get the skills required to become a venture capitalist, you need to be a successful entrepreneur who was able to recruit capital — effectively creating a feedback loop that leaves women on the outside looking in.
The case also led to introspection about the less obvious barriers: How attitudes, behaviors and even actions are perceived across racial and gender divides and the unconscious biases that can color those perceptions. "It made us think through how we'd handle subtle situations that could be seen completely differently through different people’s eyes," as Liz Gannes at re/code put it.
So even if Pao and her lawyers couldn't convince a jury that her particular case had merit, the court of public opinion is now judging the entirety of the tech industry. And other gender discrimination lawsuits launched during the trial, including those against Facebook and Twitter, may see that judgment extended back into the courtroom again.
For Pao, that seems to be at least some small solace. "If I’ve helped to level the playing field for women and minorities in venture capital, then the battle was worth it," she said in a statement after the jury handed down its verdict.