The Ellen Pao lawsuit against her employer, Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, a major Silicon Valley VC firm with investments that include Zynga and Groupon, for sexual harassment by former partner Ajit Nazre and gender discrimination by the firm, has garnered strong if not vicious attacks on Ellen on some quarters of the Valley. Many have questioned the validity of the suit, some even calling the suit nothing but an attempt to extort money from KPCB. While this is nothing new when it comes to major lawsuits, particularly sexual harassment lawsuits, the strong response from some in the Valley, including women, has taken me aback. So I ask the question, before people can see all the evidence, why are they attacking a very accomplished women in the world of business and tech?
For one, KPCB is a well established firm in venture capital. They are the “cadillac” of venture capital, as KPCB has been an early investor of Google, AOL and Amazon, to name a few. Established since 1972, KPCB is probably the most well respected VC firm on the planet. Another reason KPCB is well respected is because unlike most VC firms, KPCB is actually ahead of the curve, numbers wise at least, when it comes to hiring and retaining women. Only 9.1 percent of women make up the board members of Silicon Valley companies, compared with 16 percent of Standard & Poor’s 500 companies, according to Spencer Stuart, a headhunting firm. Meanwhile a quarter of KPCB’s 50 partners are female . So one can understand when they are leveled with this accusation, which they responded emphatically as without merit, they are forceful in their response.
Though KPCB has not in any official sense gone personal against Ellen, they have sent out surrogates, including women, to attack Ellen's lawsuit as baseless. From former employees to current ones, they stridently defend KPCB. One of them, Beth Seidenberg, a general partner, issued a statement.
“I was drawn to the firm because of its diversity and have excelled here as have other women,” she said. “Everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed” at Kleiner.
One might say it is understandable for Beth Seidenberg to defend her employer. But isn’t it better to stay silent, especially even if one tenth of what Ellen Pao alleges to be true? What is so dramatic about Ellen Pao’s lawsuit is not as much the salaciousness of the sexual harassment claims but the idea that KPCB and the venture capital world by extension, purposely demeaned and stopped women from advancing. It is as if Ellen Pao is alleging that all the women KPCB has hired has only been for a dog and pony show.
What is also troubling is the number of anonymous or sometimes not so anonymous attacks on Ellen Pao. From Twitter to comments on the articles written on this subject, a good number of people have questioned her integrity. Though none of these people have any associations with KPCB (not that we know of) or Ellen Pao, they have accused her of leveling this lawsuit for the pure reason of greed. And what is worse is they have brought up her husband, Alphonse “Buddy” Fletcher, who happens to be black and have had gay relationships.
For example, just in one article from the Business Insider, we grabbed a couple of comments that seem to capture what a lot of people are leveling against Ellen Pao and her lawsuit.
“I believe this woman is married to Alfonse "Buddy" Fletcher who is suing the Dakota in New York for discrimination. In its rebuttal, the Dakota said that fletcher was inflating his numbers on his firm. There was also a business insider article about how Louisiana was trying to get their money out of Fletcher's firm. There is definitely a lot more to this story.”
“The lawsuit is frivolous. In fact Ms Pao's family has been at this for quite a while. She is married to a (formerly gay) guy who sued the Dakota.”
What the second commenter is implying is that Ellen Pao’s husband is suing the Dakota management where he lives. Mr. Fletcher is accusing the co-op management of not letting him buy another unit because of racial discrimination, which the Dakota management denies. Mr. Fletcher, who graduated from Harvard and is a successful investment banker, was also involved in another lawsuit against Kidder Peabody in 1991, where he was an equity trader. The lawsuit went to arbitration and he was awarded $1.3 million.
Mr. Fletcher's personal life is now being documented. Before he married Ellen Pao, he had a long time male companion, and was involved in two sexual harrasment lawsuits against him by other men. Mr. Fletcher denied the allegations, which were settled out of court.
Bringing Mr. Fletcher’s personal life to Ellen Pao’s lawsuit equation is unnecessary but yet people are somehow linking it and bloggers and journalists are writing about it. Mr. Fletcher’s previous lawsuits should also not matter as there is no connection whatsoever, except that he is married to Ellen Pao. But somehow people are associating Mr. Fletcher’s past and current legal issues as if to suggest Ellen Pao’s lawsuit is frivolous. As if implying Mr. Fletcher’s own lawsuits are frivolous which so far have no basis in evidence.
I do want to point out the majority of comments I have read are fair and supportive of Ellen. However, despite in the minority, the level of unfair and personal accusations by some are being publicized by the way of social media and blog interviews.
The Ellen Pao lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers has riveted Silicon Valley and the larger tech community. We should pay attention to this lawsuit because the impact is huge for women in tech, particularly if the accusations are true. Perhaps with this lawsuit, men won’t be as blatant in treating women like second class citizens in the world of tech and venture capital. And if it is not true, let’s wait until we hear it from the courtroom not from the anonymity of the web, or worse, slandering Mrs. Pao and Mr. Fletcher in such a public way.
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