clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Most Dangerous Meme in the Pao/Kleiner Trial: 'Now, No One Will Hire Women'

The most insidious whispering around the KP trial.

Courtroom sketch by Vicki Behringer.

Let’s talk about one of the nastiest things people are saying about the venture capital industry in the wake of Ellen Pao’s gender discrimination suit against her former employer, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers:

“Now, venture capital firms will be even less likely to hire women.”

It’s odd that otherwise intelligent people say this. If someone were to imply the same thing about black executives during a lawsuit about racial discrimination, most people would be appalled. But the idea that venture capital firms will be less likely to hire women now has been in many conversations heard by both writers of this story — whispered among groups of men and women, tech executives and reporters and always with the realpolitik lilt of “let’s be real.”

Re/code is obviously not taking any side in the trial, but one thing we will firmly say is that this meme and attitude is insidious. And it’s most definitely the wrong thing to take away from this complicated and fascinating deliberation.

The technology industry has a bad gender diversity problem, but venture capital — which controls where the money and opportunity flows, greasing the wheels of the whole industry — is even worse. Only four percent of the people in senior investing roles are women, according to research conducted by Fortune. Many of the most highly regarded investors in technology — Benchmark, Sequoia Capital, Greylock Partners, Andreessen Horowitz — have no women in senior investing roles. Kleiner is actually one of the better firms at 20 percent, but that’s still not a great number.

“I’m really worried that this case will make people subconsciously not hire women because they’re worried if they don’t perform, they will say it’s because they are women,” said Elahe Enssani, a professor of civil engineering at San Francisco State who has attended the trial on at least three days to see it for herself.

Enssani said she’s decided that a lawsuit is not the best way to create change, in part because it has raised the stakes so high. She added that over the course of attending the trial, her “opinion has changed to be more Kleiner Perkins.”

Joyce Park, the co-founder and CTO of content bookmarking site PandaWhale, disagreed that the trial was counterproductive. “The fact that she would put herself out there like this ultimately is going to help everyone,” Park said of Pao. “As long as gender was just whispered about but not a matter of public discourse, we couldn’t share information effectively.”

For Park, whose company uses office space owned by Kleiner, but has not taken an investment from the firm, there’s a lesson in the observation that Pao’s personality and behavior is coming under fire, even as her former fellow junior partner, Trae Vassallo, is coming off as having conducted herself perfectly. Yet neither woman was able to become general partners at the firm.

“So maybe on the sheep and lamb principle, they’ll be able to speak up without fear,” Park said of other women. What does that mean? “You might as well not try to be extra good if the outcome will be negative anyway.”

While it does matter which side the jury takes, to many observers the larger and growing conversation around the case is becoming more important.

“This KP thing is this whole wildfire spreading effect. It’s not really helping things, but it’s forcing the issue,” said one woman who asked not to be named, but has worked for nearly a decade in venture capital and believes the sector has pervasive gender discrimination.

“What if she wins? She gets some cash (as do her attorneys) and nothing much will change except the ‘good ol’ boys’ will probably include less women into their affairs (no pun intended),” wrote a commenter on The Guardian.

As the conversation around women in tech reaches a boiling point with this sometimes salacious trial, people can point to the brouhaha, the bad PR, the mess and say to each other that now no one will hire women in Silicon Valley. They can look inside Kleiner’s inboxes and think maybe venture capital isn’t the right place for women. These would be a terrible outcomes.

No matter which side wins, what would be a positive outcome of this trial? If it were to help crack open a discourse that leads to more diversity, not less.

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.