“Women Kill The Buzz”: Sexism, Silicon Valley, & What Happens Now

The wondrous trial of Ellen Pao came to a less than wondrous conclusion as a jury decided her former employer, Kleiner Perkins, does not owe her the hundreds of millions she sought. In fact the jury negged the plaintiff on every point. But press coverage of the event has noted that the situation is not as simple as “Pao lost.” For instance, as Buzzfeed points out, women tech reporters gained new prominence:

female reporters, everywhere. Of the people who’ve spent significant time covering the trial, fewer than a handful are men. … Last week, a group of female journalists created a private messaging group as a place to commiserate and share trial intel. It’s called “Women Kill the Buzz,” a facetious reclamation of one Kleiner partner’s (alleged) excuse-slash-explanation for why women were excluded from a company dinner. It’s a lot of fun to be a part of. …

It’s a money and power story, really — the biggest legal fight in tech since Apple-Samsung, with millions of dollars and more than a few hard-earned, carefully crafted reputations potentially on the line. The most storied venture capital firm in the Valley has been taken to court for violating the Civil Rights Act. And this case, unlike so many others, wasn’t settled out of court. Which means that for the past six weeks, the confidential business practices and firmly held cultural values at a major tech player have been on trial for all to see, at the mercy of the legal system and a group of 12 more-or-less random San Franciscans. Previously secret financial numbers were leaked, dirty laundry was aired, and the tech industry’s claim to meritocracy was fundamentally challenged. Silicon Valley rarely gets this kind of public reckoning. The women covering this trial aren’t doing so with such tenacity simply because it’s a sexism story, but because it’s a frankly insane story. And tech publications aren’t just sending their best women reporters — their best reporters now often are women.

In conclusion, the journalist notes, “this trial has been a landmark event. Even if women aren’t in the Kleiner Perkins boardroom, they’re watching and reporting on the Kleiner Perkins boardroom like never before. And Google’s. And Facebook’s. And Twitter’s. And everyone else’s too.”

That’s … something?

And smart people are adding to an important, ongoing, if still depressing conversation:

despite the trial’s outcome, most agree that Pao vs. Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers has put a spotlight on the industry and opened a dialogue that many believe will lead to more diversity across the Valley. The question is, will it?

As a senior woman in the venture industry for almost two decades, I’m sure it would not be surprising to hear that many of Ellen’s stories rang true. While I was blessed with a mentor like VC pioneer Tim Draper and the Kauffman Fellowship, once I moved past those early years into the power dynamics and hierarchy of the industry, the stories came fast and furious — the entrepreneur who presented to me and two junior (male) professionals and spoke only to the men (and how often this happened); the senior partner at a prestigious firm who was pressing me on terms by telling me how lucky I was to have a man of his stature interested in my deal; the feedback that I could be “intimidating.”

And yet, despite that, I managed to make good investments and rise to the senior ranks in my industry. I was lucky, and I had good people around me. But it is not the easiest nor likeliest outcome. In a relatively small partnership, power dynamics are hard, and success has many fathers (mothers?) when it comes to deal attribution. And when a woman or minority is left to feel isolated and embattled in that dynamic, it generates a difficult culture that makes success harder.

The whole situation still feels grim. There are ill-advised “told you so” kind of pieces in the media soup too, like this one in Fortune, which basically boils down to “I didn’t like her, and also here’s some dirt on her husband.”

I am trying to focus on the positive, though. Industry macher Sue Decker, who is very empathetic towards Pao, calls the trial “a watershed moment” and a “wake up call,” one she took her daughters to court with her to observe:

thank goodness there are people willing to stand up for civil rights at times that others are afraid to do so. The numbers have long shown there is a problem for women reaching senior positions in the venture capital industry. No one argues with that.

Whether Ellen Pao was the best plaintiff example of gender discrimination in the workplace, and whether Kleiner Perkins was the most egregious defendant choice, I do not know. There may be better examples on both sides. But it is THIS case that shined the light on a very important issue and there is no one that I have spoken with that doesn’t think at least a part of Ellen’s claims are true.


Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.