The Seedier Side of Silicon Valley? Big Tech Firm Hit by Sexual Harassment and Retaliation Allegations

Last week, Ellen Pao, a prominent venture capitalist in Silicon Valley, filed a lawsuit against her ex-employer, Kleiner Perkins, alleging that she’d been harassed and retaliated against for complaining about that harassment.

Pao lashed out at the company for mistreating her and also took Kleiner Perkins to task for failing to promote women, compensating women with lower salaries, and limiting how many investments women could make as compared with their male VC counterparts.

The allegations touched off something of a media firestorm.

New York Times editorial writer, David Kaplan, voiced skepticism about Pao’s contentions. A counter-editorial then ran in the Huffington Post, criticizing Kaplan for considering harassing behavior as mere “randiness.” Author Joan Williams also took on a bigger target – the Silicon Valley establishment itself – by saying that mistreatment of women abounds in the tech industry. Williams cites “the fact that booth babes are a staple at [industry] fairs” as well as Twitter wars over scantily-clad dancing women, as indicators of Silicon Valley’s not so subtle misogyny.

Williams explored concepts developed by professor Jennifer Berdahl, in her article, “The Sexual Harassment of Uppity Women,” to try to understand why women in high profile positions often find themselves harassed, disrespected, and retaliated against.

Berdahl’s thesis is very intriguing, in that it runs counter to the received wisdom about who gets targeted by harassment. The received wisdom is that, because of their femininity, women are more vulnerable to harassment. But Burdahl writes: “The current research suggests that sexual harassment as traditionally defined….is primarily targeted at women who step out of place by having masculine characteristics, or “uppity women.””
In other words, Berdahl posits that women who dare to challenge the power structure of an organization or “act like men” will be more likely to be targeted than will women who demur to the power structure or a more “traditional” woman’s role.

What to do if you’ve been harassed, discriminated against or otherwise mistreated
Wherever you fit in your workplace’s organizational structure and however that is perceived by others there, your justified frustration at being harassed can be compounded by feelings of helplessness and uncertainty. Fortunately, good resources are out there, if you have been mistreated. The team here at Joseph & Kirschenbaum can help you sort out your next steps. Call us at (212) 688-5640 or visit to learn more about us.

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