March 20, 2015

Interim Reddit CEO Ellen Pao’s gender-discrimination trial against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers LLP, wrapping up in a San Francisco courtroom next week, could wind up being a landmark case for women in male-dominated Silicon Valley. Given the remarkable number of women in the courtroom’s press gallery, it could wind up being an important case for female journalists as well.

Ellen Pao, center, with her attorney, Therese Lawless, left, leaves the Civic Center Courthouse during a lunch break in her trial in San Francisco. Pau is seeking $16 million in her suit against prominent Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield and Byers, alleging she was sexually harassed by male officials. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Ellen Pao, center, with her attorney, Therese Lawless is seeking $16 million in her suit against Kleiner Perkins Caulfield and Byers, alleging she was sexually harassed by male officials. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

 Pao’s case has had the tech world on the edge of its seat, and women reporters are the ones who put her story in the headlines. After Pao quietly filed suit in San Francisco  Superior Court in May of 2012, TechCrunch reporter Colleen Taylor discovered the complaint and broke the story. Since then, women in the press — particularly the tech, business and legal press — have run with it.

The allegations against Kleiner Perkins are scandalous, but also spell out day-to-day life for women in the Valley. Pao claims a co-worker pressured her into having an affair with him, but she broke it off after discovering he’d lied about leaving his wife. He later hit on another woman at the firm and was fired for it. Pao says another male colleague gave her inappropriate gifts, and she was punished for complaining. In the bigger picture, Kleiner Perkins women were excluded from dinners with Vice President Al Gore and ski trips where they could network and help close deals, and were kept in the lower ranks while men were nurtured and promoted, Pao says.

By venture capital standards, Kleiner Perkins’ gender track record isn’t so bad; 20 percent of its partners are women, compared to 6 percent at other firms. Newsrooms are far from parity as well. According to a 2014 Women’s Media Center report, women constituted 36.1 percent of bylines or on-air appearances. In the Pao courtroom, however, women easily make up more than half the reporters.

 Some of those reporting on Pao’s trial are there by happenstance — either they were the only reporter available, or their beat overlaps with the case (full disclosure: I’m one of them). However, it’s clear that others are there because they’ve claimed the story as their own.

 “I’ve been following this from the very beginning, so I wasn’t assigned to the story as much as it sort of found me from the start,” Taylor said in an email.

 TechCrunch has had two reporters in the courtroom daily, including Taylor and Kim-Mai Cutler. Kara Swisher, co-executive editor at tech-news site Re/Code, has also assigned two of her reporters to the trial, Liz Gannes and Nellie Bowles — and that was largely because of her.

 “We are doing a flood-the-zone on the Pao trial because I said so. That said, my male editors are all very supportive,” Swisher told me by email.

 When I asked the reporters in the room whether they felt that their gender influences their coverage of the trial, many said no. Elizabeth Weise, who’s reporting for USA Today, said the fact that she’s writing straight news stories leaves little room for slant. However, Kristen V. Brown, who covers the culture of the tech industry for the San Francisco Chronicle, said in an email that it’s probably easier for women journalists to resonate with the microaggressions Pao describes in her case.

 “We get that these small slights are indicative of a culture that, by default, regards women as belonging in supporting roles. I think that perspective has probably resulted in some degree of sympathy and understanding of what Pao went through, even as those things do not necessarily add up to proving her claim,” Brown said.

 The fact that so many of the tech reporters in the room — including Wired’s Davey Alba, The Verge’s Nitasha Tiku and Ars Technica’s Megan Geuss — are women suggest that the gender balance in that sector is shifting. Swisher told me they’re far from the majority; the tech journalism world is still “mostly dudes.” But that’s changing as women like her, TechCrunch co-editor Alexia Tsosis and Bloomberg technology editor Pui Wing-Tam rise to powerful positions, she said.

 That, in turn, has changed how stories related to women in the tech sector are told, according to Sue Gardner, a former journalist and the Wikimedia Foundation’s executive director from 2007 to 2014. Tiku, for example, was instrumental in turning up the volume on Stanford University Professor Vivek Wadhwa, who’s accused of misrepresenting women in Silicon Valley. Gamasutra and BoingBoing writer Leigh Alexander was among the first to write publicly about Gamergate, in which trolls have harassed and threatened female gamers, developers and critics, including Anita Sarkeesian.

 “There is a huge story about sexism in Silicon Valley that has historically been under-covered. And I think what we are seeing now is enterprising female reporters starting to come in and fill that gap,” Gardner said. “I think that’s great, because they’re important stories and they stimulate important conversations.”

 Former Poynter Managing Editor Mallary Tenore, who now runs Images and Voices of Hope, a nonprofit that helps strengthen the media’s role as an agent of change and world benefit, said she’s seen a greater push for women to become involved in male-dominated industries such as technology. It’s a good idea for female reporters to cover those industries because they can help create meaningful awareness and change, in part by telling stories that highlight women’s successes and bring women’s challenges out of the shadows, Tenore said in an email.

 Tenore added that both men and women are capable of telling such stories, a sentiment echoed by PandoDaily’s Dan Raile, one of the few male tech reporters covering Pao’s trial. Although Raile acknowledged in an email interview that his gender likely provides a general lens through which he sees the world, when it comes to covering Pao’s allegations, “I feel like an uninvolved male observer … and don’t think it affects my or any individual journalist’s coverage unduly.”

 Tenore said that newsrooms will benefit from boosting diversity in their reporting staff, partly because it leads to more thorough and balanced coverage of issues that reflect news consumers’ everyday experiences.

“When people see stories that affect them and their communities directly — stories they can relate to — they are probably going to be more drawn to the news organization that published that story,” she said.

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