Ellen Pao's gender discrimination lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers has floated in Bay Area headlines for the last couple of weeks. The Wall Street Journal published a good summary of the case on February 17: Ellen Pao Lawsuit Against Kleiner Perkins Heading Toward Trial. Ms. Pao claims her promotion to senior partner was blocked by poor reviews from a senior partner who had sexually harassed her, especially after she refused his attentions. The suit claims multiple millions of dollars in lost wages and profits; and yes, if she'd been promoted to senior partner, she might well have made that much.
The firm, as is usual in such cases, claims that Ms. Pao is "not qualified" for promotion. The firm's descriptions of her, and things the partners have said about her (as attributed to the firm in news reports), are a type study in discriminatory treatment of professional women. I believe they even complained that she was "aggressive," a trait they covet in male hires.
Media accounts have focused on gender discrimination "in tech," and "in Silicon Valley." I saw discrimination like this so long ago that "tech" wasn't even an industry, and the only connection with the tech industry here is that Kleiner Perkins is a venture capital firm which invests in the tech industry.
Ms. Pao took a risk when she hired on at a partnership. Partnership is an organizational form concentrated in the banking, finance and investment fields, and also in related fields like accounting and law. I worked for one of these firms, which I won't name, for about 10 years in the late '70s and early '80s. Not every partnership is like the one I worked for, and today there are partnerships with female members, even some in venture capital. But partnership firms, like the one I worked for, can become a patriarchal 3 class society - the partners, godlike, at the top, owners of everything; below them the people on "partner track," who hope to become partners; and below them the support staff (including my humble self), who will never make partner and are therefore of no importance, regardless of what professional qualifications they may have. In that 3 class society, women in the top tier are extremely rare, and women in the lowest tier were at general risk of sexual harassment. I was never harassed myself; but I knew women who were - and by partners.
Kleiner Perkins isn't the firm I worked for; it isn't even in the same field. But some of the things its partners are on record as doing are things that I was aware of in the firm where I worked, those many years ago. This was so early in the history of Silicon Valley that the "hot rising tech firm" was Apple, still operating out of a garage.
Ms. Pao has since been appointed the interim CEO of Reddit, Inc., a popular content-sharing site. Reddit is a corporation, not a partnership. With any luck, she'll be appointed permanent CEO. I recommend she stay away from partnerships.
I don't mean to imply that Silicon Valley doesn't have a gender discrimination problem; it does. But the gender discrimination Ms. Pao found at Kleiner Perkins is a much older form. The New York Times has an excellent article on the whole tech sexism issue, which goes into detail, and explains the implications that sexism in venture capital firms could have for the entire industry. The point I wanted to make is that, although gender discrimination exists in Silicon Valley, they didn't start it; and what Kleiner Perkins appears to be doing feels like the world I worked in, back in the last millennium.