For weeks, Ellen Pao’s gender discrimination lawsuit against venerable venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers has been a top subject in Silicon Valley. Was Pao too opinionated, with “too sharp elbows” – or a victim of gender bias? As the case arrived at closing arguments on Tuesday, one thing seemed clear: young women working in Silicon Valley are watching this case carefully – and even a little fearfully.
In the last week, Fortune reached out to 15 young women at VC firms and tech firms to find out what emotions, thoughts, and conversations were being stirred by this case. Most didn’t respond. Fortune even heard that some women had been warned by their female mentors in the VC industry not to give an interview because it could hurt their careers down the road.
Ultimately, four young women agreed to talk to Fortune. Arielle Desiray Contreras, 25, just completed her first year as an account strategist at an influential tech company. Jade Wang, 31, has a doctorate in neuroscience and is co-founder of Sandstorm.io, an open source platform for personal servers. Two others -- a female entrepreneur with aspirations of working in VC and a Stanford business school student -- also agreed to talk only on the condition of anonymity.
According to these four women, the Pao case is prompting a lot of soul-searching and discussion – much of it positive. Here’s what these four women say is being discussed in their offices.
1. Most men and women support Pao, but are afraid to publicly admit that.
In Wang’s circle of friends and colleagues, both men and women tend to side with Pao, but they will only admit this belief in private conversations.
“A lot of them don’t want to say anything negative about Kleiner Perkins in case they might want to take money from them in the future, but their personal opinion that they hold tends to go toward Ellen Pao,” she says.
In Silicon Valley, pedigree and credentials carry a lot of weight. So the fact that Pao – with a bachelor’s in engineering from Princeton, a JD and MBA from Harvard – was called “unqualified” by Kleiner Perkins’ attorney Lynne Hermle in court is considered galling to some. The tech entrepreneur interviewed (who wished not to be identified) called it a sign of “the casual sexism.”
2. People are curious as to how the witnesses’ testimonies will impact their careers.
Close attention is being paid to those who testify, says the Stanford b-school student.
“We’re all wondering, “who will testify? Will it ruin their careers if they do?’”
3. There is a debate about whether Pao’s case will result in fewer — or more — VC firms hiring or promoting women.
Could Pao’s case discourage VC firms from hiring women? It’s been described as “one of the nastiest things” that’s being whispered among inner-circles of tech and media. Both Nellie Bowles and Liz Gannes at Recode say they’ve heard this discussed. Erika Brown Ekiel, a former director of marketing at Greylock Partners according to her LinkedIn profile, claimed to have heard it straight from the horse’s mouth. She tweeted on March 5 that a VC told her he’d be less likely to hire a female partner if Kleiner loses the case.
Wang, however, says she hasn’t heard such sentiments. “I don’t think Kleiner Perkins came out looking well,” she says. “I don’t think VC firms want to risk a PR nightmare.”
4. This case may discourage women from working at VC firms.
“I think certainly the case will affect the number of women who would have [at one time] chosen to go to certain VC firms,” says Wang. Are women better off starting at a smaller VC firm than the blue chip Kleiner Perkins, which has a long-established culture? This is the question some are asking.
“I remembered [Harvard Business School professor Paul Gombers] saying [during his testimony] that larger, more established firms were better for women and I thought that that was totally nonsensical,” says Wang. “I would expect that older, more established firms would be harder for women to navigate.”
5. The case is prompting a re-examination of the dynamics of pitching to investors.
Wang says she has heard “a great deal” of discussion about the dynamics of pitching to investors, especially when it comes to the “salesmanship and hype” pitching style that some VCs seem to prefer. “It’s a sort of bro-y personality type,” she says, describing that as “self-aggrandizing machismo.” When pitching these kinds of investors, entrepreneurs feel pressure to act similarly “bro-y” or risk losing the deal.
6. This case will encourage more women to speak up.
Pao’s case seems to be emboldening other women in tech to speak out against alleged gender bias. Just weeks after Pao’s trial started, former employees of Facebook and Twitter filed their own suits alleging gender discrimination.
Wang is among those who believe Pao’s case is emboldening women. “It’s starting to become a pattern where people are no longer afraid of being labeled the trouble maker,” she says, noting the Twitter case. She sees it as a positive. “That makes it so that companies feel like they have to be held accountable.”
7. Some men are showing a heightened sensitivity to gender issues.
Contreras, who describes herself as a champion of diversity issues in her office, said recently one of her former bosses – a white male -- invited her to lunch to seek her advice. A female employee had wanted to discuss issues of gender bias, and he felt ill-equipped to respond. She says he told her, “I don’t ever want to go into a conversation like that [again] and feel like I don’t know what to say.”
Contreras stresses that she welcomed the conversation and sees it as a big positive, noting that Pao had testified that her concerns had gone on deaf ears. “I thought it was really awesome that he could set up lunch with me and say, ‘I don’t know how to approach this.’” She adds, “We do want to encourage more open dialogue like I had with my former manager about how to handle those kind of conversations without feeling like there has to be an HR person in the room—or that he might get sued if he says the wrong thing.”
Vivian Giang is a New York-based writer.