Lessons From the Kleiner Perkins Trial: Stopping Discrimination Against Women

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In recent weeks much media attention has been paid to an important case against a well-known Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers. Since late February, the technology sector venture capitalist has been embroiled in litigation involving allegations that its upper management consistently and repeatedly engaged in gender discrimination in the workplace. 

These allegations aren’t exactly surprising, considering the reputation the tech sector has gained for its sexual harassing and discriminating ways. In fact, Wired recently referred to the case as “an incisive look at the dark side of Silicon Valley’s work culture—a side characterized by systematic discrimination against women.”

This case is indeed one more example of how rampant this epidemic has become.

In fact, according to a recent Harvard Business Review report, most women in the fields of science, engineering and technology claim they have been sexually harassed in the workplace and nearly half of them leave those industries after only a few years.


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Ellen Pao, a former partner at the firm, brought the suit against Kleiner Perkins in 2012, claiming gender discrimination and seeking $16 million. And the list of accusations she brings against the company seems endless:

  • Pao says that women were purposely not invited to client dinners because her male colleagues believed they “kill the buzz.” Women were excluded from a company golf retreat because her colleagues claimed there weren’t enough condos. And women were passed over for senior leadership positions in favor of men—only men.
  • Pao herself says she was passed over in favor of a man for a managing partner role. And even more baffling, Mary Meeker—a renowned Internet analyst who joined Kleiner Perkins in 2010—was excluded from a senior, lucrative role on the Digital Growth Fund, which she helps run. The managing partners on that fund were all men.
  • Pao also claims that, after she ended an affair she was having with fellow junior partner, Anjit Nazre, he retaliated against her—and when she brought those claims to management, they told her not to complain because she was treated fairly. Soon after that, she filed the suit, and Kleiner Perkins ultimately fired her.

As the trial has unfolded, it has become clear that Kleiner Perkins’s guidelines for how to deal with conflicts and other types of inappropriate behavior were severely lacking, if in existence at all. According to trial transcripts, the firm’s partners had wide discretion to deal with these types of problems however they chose.

The trial has also shed light on the lack of human resources oversight at the firm, which appears to have been a problem for years. On the stand, a senior manager admitted to making mistakes when handling these issues.

For tech companies—or any company dealing with the need for a significant culture change—quick action is required and at a minimum should include some key action items:

  • Identify organizational values (such as showing respect and treating people with dignity) and strive to ensure that everything your organization does is consistent with these values.
  • Create or bolster your policy against harassment and retaliation.
  • Get senior leadership support and buy-in; they will need to stand behind some tough decisions.
  • Empower the HR function to make important decisions.
  • Train management about how to spot and end harassment and retaliation—and how to handle complaints.
  • Train all employees about the rules and expectations.
  • Have a process in place to investigate complaints promptly, fairly and thoroughly.
  • Hold employees accountable for violating the rules and if necessary terminate their employment.

And for all organizations, keep in mind some very important lessons that flow from the tech sector’s problems:

  • Don’t assume that your employees know the rules or know when their conduct crosses the line.
  • Don’t assume that young workers know better—just like the rest of us they still need training on these important topics. 
  • Don’t assume that the exceptional new employee you hired away from a hot new start-up is going to seamlessly blend into your carefully established, respectful culture. Chances are they may need more than a little fine-tuning.

Using Our Role as E&C Professionals to Make a Difference

While the tech sector may serve as an exaggerated example of modern day sexual harassment, the reality is that it still exists in the workplace; this systemic problem isn’t theirs alone. Sexual harassment is alive and kicking, and despite size or industry, every organization is vulnerable to this type of misconduct. 

As employers, it’s our responsibility to take a hard look at our own organizations and determine if this kind of conduct (even if it is not as aggressive or systemic) is creating a toxic work environment for employees.

Don’t shy away from asking women and men in your engineering, technology and science related jobs how it’s going—and be prepared to respond appropriately if their responses are not glowing. And when it comes to new hires, choose wisely and carefully, and make sure you provide them (and all your employees) with really great training.

Image Courtesy of Dreamstime

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