What the Kleiner Perkins Trial Really Means for Gender in Silicon Valley

One of my favorite subjects about which I write and speak is the importance of gender diversity in the workplace. I’ve written here before about how to increase the numbers of women tech leaders and how to increase women’s participation in computer science programs in college. Also, I’ve shown how woman are yielding successful results as start-up heads. It probably comes as no surprise, given my passion for women’s issues, that I followed Ellen Pao’s gender discrimination lawsuit against her former employer, Kleiner Perkins, with great interest. Whether proved or not in her specific case, the issues the Pao trial raised are significant factors in many women’s everyday work lives. Especially as a company leader, I give a lot of thought to how to effect positive change with regard to issues of gender disparity. To that end, I’m grateful for the dialogue Pao’s case sparked with regard to issues of gender at work.

To me, Pao’s case really wasn’t about its specific outcome; it was about shining a spotlight on issues of gender discrimination and sexism that we all know exist. In one article that compares the Ellen Pao v. Kleiner Perkins trial to the Clarence Thomas v. Anita Hill one, Joan Williams, distinguished professor of law at the University of California Hastings College of Law, suggested “The Pao case has been a month-long gender bias training to the world, and in a very high profile context.” I agree; therein lies its value to the world. Now, where do we go from here?

It’s my hope that Pao’s trial experience results not in more legal action but, rather, in more open-mindedness to gender issues accompanied by a desire to deal with these issues constructively. Senior management, especially, needs to be on the lookout for how women on their staff are treated and must be proactive in handling issues, no matter how seemingly small. As well, change can start at the beginning, with hiring. Quoted in this arstechnica article, multi-time founder Fran Maier says, “I’m not sure any company is going to think about diversity first, but if they become more enlightened, they’ll think about reaching out to a larger network, maybe understanding that a woman’s point of view could make a difference, or that a more diverse staff makes better decisions.” The real “win” of the Pao case – since there really were no winners in that lawsuit – will be when businesses do exactly as Maier suggests: when they learn and grow from valuing a gender-diverse staff. I have long been a proponent of businesses making gender-neutral policies, and I’ve shared tips for doing that which I’ve implemented in my own companies. Personally, I’m not in favor of quotas as a solution to diversifying a workplace; equality is not a numbers game. Equality is more about treatment and fairness of access than it is about numbers. My hope is that the outcome of Pao’s case for every company is a look inward at its diversity values, measures, and goals.

We must celebrate our successes alongside those lessons, too. I am proud of my company, RingCentral, for appointing a woman, Michelle McKenna Doyle, CIO of the NFL, to our board. There are many ways to take steps like these that trend in a positive direction for company diversity. Legal action alone will never propel women to positions of equality. But in some cases, like Pao’s, a lawsuit might force the fast-tracking of a conversation that has long needed to happen. Fortune magazine summed it up well: “The suit will likely have a lasting impact on society, and a positive one for the cause of equal treatment in the workplace.” I hope that is, indeed, the case.

Have the issues raised around the Ellen Pao v. Kleiner Perkins trial impacted the way you run your business? I’d like to hear from you in the comments below.

This piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post on April 16, 2015 and on LinkedIn on April 22, 2015.

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About Kira Makagon

Kira Makagon is a successful serial entrepreneur and tech industry leader. A graduate of UC Berkeley with both an undergraduate degree in computer science and an MBA, she enjoys sharing her lessons learned from being a veteran “only woman in the room.” Kira's recent awards and recognitions include the following: 2015 YWCA Silicon Valley Tribute to Women Award 2015 Golden Bridge Business and Innovation Awards Named to Silicon Valley Business Journal Women of Influence in 2015 Named to SF Business Times Most Influential Women in Bay Area Business for 2015 and 2016 2016 Bay Area CIO Awards finalist

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