The Ellen Pao-Kleiner Perkins trial, which went to jury deliberations yesterday, is a milestone case and it may well be a milestone verdict. Not just because $160 million in possible compensatory and punitive damages is an awful lot of money, but also because this is the highest-profile example yet of Silicon Valley's boys club on literal and figurative trial. Ellen Pao may or may not ultimately have a winning gender discrimination case against Kleiner Perkins, but there's a very real gender discrimination case to be made against Silicon Valley.
The statistics are staggering and unequivocal. Only 15% of technical jobs in Silicon Valley are held by women; recent studies reveal that there are no more women in computing fields now than there were more than 50 years ago in 1960. Ellen Pao may be an anomaly in venture capital — only 4% of senior investing VC partners are women, a figure that has actually declined in recent years — but she's far from the only woman to allege gender bias in tech. Since her trial began, two other women have come out of the woodwork with claims similar to Pao's: Chia Hong sued Facebook for sexual harassment and gender discrimination, and Tina Huang filed a class-action lawsuit against Twitter, alleging that the company's promotion process is inherently and unfairly favorable to men. This case is already reverberating through the industry.
But ultimately, the most salient thing about the trial may not have happened on the stand, but in the press box. This was the moment at which, amid the region's boys club brogrammer culture, a new and powerful Silicon Valley female press corps emerged.
Consider this: Damn near every major outlet that sent someone to cover this trial sent their star reporters, and those reporters are women. Re/code's Liz Gannes and Nellie Bowles delivered wall-to-wall coverage, huddling on the courtroom lobby's floor typing away though lunches and breaks. The Verge's Nitasha Tiku has produced lively and insightful writing about the trial. Forbes' Ellen Huet dipped in and out of the courtroom, while also covering Uber's failed U.N. women's partnership and Lyft's latest fundraising round. USA Today's Elizabeth Weise has filed 28 columns and news stories and counting. Wired's Davey Alba has earned the dubious distinction of being the only reporter to go "gavel to gavel," taking only the briefest of breaks.
There are many, many more: the San Francisco Chronicle's Kristen Brown, TechCrunch's Alexia Tsotsis and Colleen Taylor, CNN's Heather Kelly, the Los Angeles Times' Andrea Chang and Tracey Lien, Law360's Beth Weingarner, the New Yorker's Vauhini Vara, Ars Technica's Megan Geuss, The Recorder's Marisa Kendall, and Pacific Standard's Susie Cagle, among others. You can see it in line at the courthouse's basement cafe or at Acre Coffee on Polk Street, chatting in the courtroom before proceedings begin for the day, in the elevator: female reporters, everywhere. Of the people who've spent significant time covering the trial, fewer than a handful are men.
This is new. Just two years ago, tech journalism's rising stars — the ones who seemed to be telling the most important stories the most loudly — were, by and large, men, and though the beat has always had a few high-profile elder stateswomen, numbers-wise, it barely had a better record than the industry it covered. Industry-wide, women still contribute only about a third of the bylines in major US newspapers, and the stories they do write are much likelier to focus on service and lifestyle than hard news.
At the trial, this inversion of the status quo is so striking it's become a running joke. For example, PandoDaily's Dan Raile described himself, not at all inaccurately, as "a lone Y chromosome" amid the sea of women who've come to occupy the back corners of the courtroom reserved for press. Last week, a group of female journalists created a private messaging group as a place to commiserate and share trial intel. It's called "Women Kill the Buzz," a facetious reclamation of one Kleiner partner's (alleged) excuse-slash-explanation for why women were excluded from a company dinner. It's a lot of fun to be a part of.
This kind of story is fun to be a part of, the kind of news event that that thrills reporters. Because even if it's ostensibly a gender story, it's much bigger than that. There are real numbers and real secrets being exposed here, things that are important that right now happen to be covered by women. Things that, presumably, the women covering this trial care about just as much as the sexism at issue.
It's a money and power story, really — the biggest legal fight in tech since Apple-Samsung, with millions of dollars and more than a few hard-earned, carefully crafted reputations potentially on the line. The most storied venture capital firm in the Valley has been taken to court for violating the Civil Rights Act. And this case, unlike so many others, wasn't settled out of court. Which means that for the past six weeks, the confidential business practices and firmly held cultural values at a major tech player have been on trial for all to see, at the mercy of the legal system and a group of 12 more-or-less random San Franciscans. Previously secret financial numbers were leaked, dirty laundry was aired, and the tech industry's claim to meritocracy was fundamentally challenged. Silicon Valley rarely gets this kind of public reckoning. The women covering this trial aren't doing so with such tenacity simply because it's a sexism story, but because it's a frankly insane story. And tech publications aren't just sending their best women reporters — their best reporters now often are women.
No matter what happens when the jury returns from deliberations, this trial has been a landmark event. Even if women aren't in the Kleiner Perkins boardroom, they're watching and reporting on the Kleiner Perkins boardroom like never before. And Google's. And Facebook's. And Twitter's. And everyone else's too.
This is important, and not just because of the optics, or because a diverse press is a better press. It's important because the kind of sexism on trial here (and on evidence elsewhere in tech) is a particularly insidious kind of sexism. After all, if the testimony has shown us anything, it's just how easy it is for men to miss (or pretend to miss) implicit bias. It's colored by subjectivity and cloaked in subtlety, a series of microaggressions and minor slights that, in the aggregate, serve to keep women out of the boardrooms and off of the top of the org charts at many of the Valley's most powerful companies. This implied bias is a dog whistle: imperceptible to everyone except for the people to whom it's pretty much unbearable.
The journalists covering this trial can hear it. Even if the people covering this trial are doing it for reasons divorced from their own gender, their reporting is informed by experience. And even if Pao loses, her story is, for the first time, being told by people who actually know what a thousand tiny paper cuts feel like. It's being told by the same people who've had to not only endure but report on Titstare and T.J. Miller's disastrous Crunchies performance, who've sat straight-faced through many of the same small indignities Pao did, who are used to being the only woman in the room. It's being told by a press corps that for the first time has more in common with the alleged victim than the alleged perpetrators.
Considered in that context, something like Women Kill the Buzz isn't a one-off or jokey stab at internet-style ironic misandry. It is, actually, a revolutionary statement, and very, very hopeful: A literal girls club carved out of, but wholly, happily separate from the boys; a wry, winking rebuke to the bro culture they — we — haven't just reported on but lived firsthand; a knowing show of the kind of confidence Pao was punished for having.
Ellen Cushing is an articles editor for BuzzFeed News' tech section and is based in San Francisco.
Contact Ellen Cushing at email@example.com.
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