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Ellen Pao's Case Ends on an Impassioned Plea for Women in Tech

"Ellen Pao wanted a seat at the table."

Vicki Behringer

Ellen Pao’s lawyer Therese Lawless today stepped away from the details of the case and gave an impassioned rallying cry for women in Silicon Valley who just want their seat at the table.

The lawsuit — filed by Pao against her former employer Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which, she alleged, discriminated and retaliated against her — has captivated Silicon Valley, where many women have felt gender issues reaching a boiling point.

This case has become important because people want it to be important, but there has been a gap between the narrative outside court and the narrative inside the courtroom. Many in the Valley have wanted this lawsuit, which is messy and complicated and singular, to be a simpler rallying point for the cause of women in tech. Today, Lawless gave them that — the Ellen Pao Lean-In Manifesto.

On the 24th and last day in court, Lawless pushed the case into a larger narrative: Here is a woman who wanted a seat at the table and was punished for asking.

“Throughout this trial Kleiner Perkins has tried to blame Ellen Pao to distract you from themselves and their failure to comply with the law,” she said to the jurors. “In the state of California, in this country, it is illegal for employers to discriminate against employees because of their gender. Every individual in this country is allowed to go to work and have equity in the workplace. Every individual is allowed to have the same standards applied to them. That’s what she wanted. That’s why we’re here.”

She said Ellen Pao filed the suit to effect broader cultural change.

“The culture there needed to change. It needed to change. It had negative repercussions for the women who were trying to move up in the organization,” she said. “If you look at the reviews of the gentlemen and see the different subjective descriptions of everyone and how they’re judged — ‘being a lone wolf, acting on their own, having sharp elbows.’ All those negative criticisms, why did I show them?”

Lawless looked around the room for flourish.

“Because they’re human beings, just like she’s a human being, just like we’re all human beings. But for the men, it didn’t hurt them getting promoted. But it hurt her. That’s why I showed them to you,” she said. “Women will be judged in one way and men in another. That’s not how it works in this country.”

The partners at Kleiner Perkins argued that Pao was never cut out for venture capital but instead would be a great “operator,” or manager, at a company.

“What really, really bothers me in this case is that some men think that they can decide what she’s best at, and that’s what’s wrong,” Lawless said. “That is not tolerated anymore. It’s illegal.”

She invoked Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” treatise for gender equality in the workplace.

“When Ellen Pao wanted a seat at the table, Matt Murphy and others thought she was being presumptuous. But it was normal for her to do that,” she said. “How do you think her male colleagues got on the many boards they sat on?”

A company Pao advocated investing in while at Kleiner Perkins was extremely successful and went public, but Pao didn’t receive a promotion. Kleiner Perkins attorney Lynne Hermle had argued that investment success was not the main criteria on which partners were judged — she called that presumption “crazy” — and said the ability to play well on “team KP” was more important.

Said Lawless: “Another statement I found disturbing about the world of venture capital is that realizing profits would be a ‘crazy criteria.’ What is this world about? It’s not about a bunch of people sitting around and singing ‘Kumbaya.’ No, they have a mission. It’s their job to get higher returns for the limited partners who have trusted their money with them — that is Mr. Doerr’s testimony. That’s what matters. Let’s look at what matters — let’s look at the bottom line here.”

As for why Pao filed the suit: “She wanted them to pay because if they were going to run her out and take away her career, a career she wanted to pursue, then they needed to have something to make them think about doing it in the future.”

Hermle said no other women took the stand to complain about discrimination. Lawless said that was because they were afraid.

“Why didn’t more women come up to the stand? The venture capital world is small. Ms. Pao had a hard time getting a job when she was talking to people after her termination,” Lawless said. “People have many different reasons for not taking on powerful organizations — they have rent to pay, they have lives. Just because Ellen Pao is willing to stand up to them and say no doesn’t mean there aren’t many other women who want or wanted to do the same. This is very difficult to do, very difficult.”

The narrative that Kleiner Perkins cast was that Pao was a difficult and ungrateful employee. Hermle and witnesses frequently used the word “entitled” to describe Pao.

“Kleiner Perkins has been acting entitled,” Lawless said. “It’s not taking responsibility for its culture, where men are treated differently than women, where men are promoted over equally qualified women, where men are allowed to behave in certain ways and are rewarded.”

Lawless placed this trial into the history of civil rights: “This type of behavior is no longer acceptable. For many years, women were told you don’t have enough to own property. You don’t have enough to vote. You can go to medical school, but no, you can’t be a surgeon, go take care of the kids. You go to law school, but you practice family law, you can’t be an attorney.'”

And she returned to the idea of a boys’ club: “They have their club, and they decide who can and who can’t be in it. This woman worked so hard for the company, and they were going to determine her destiny? It’s not okay, it’s illegal.”

And, as Hermle did, Lawless appealed to the jury, asking them to use their common sense and adding: “Just remember, you are the conscience of this community, and let Kleiner Perkins and the venture capital firms know that every employee who works hard deserves a fair and equitable workplace.”

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