Chinese, Americans Watch Ellen Pao's Discrimination Case for Different Reasons

For the Chinese, it's all about the money

People in China and America alike are watching Ellen Pao's gender discrimination case against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins. But they're watching for different reasons.
Chinese, Americans Watch Ellen Pao's Discrimination Case for Different Reasons
In this Feb. 24, 2015, file photo, Ellen Pao, right, leaves the Civic Center Courthouse along with her attorney, Therese Lawless, left, during a lunch break in her trial in San Francisco. Plaintiff Pao testified Monday, March 9, 2015, that female employees were treated disrespectfully at the firm of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and some were not even invited, when the company held a series of events. Pao also told the jury at the civil trial that she complained to management about the atmosphere at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers after learning a female colleague had complained about alleged sexual harassment. The investigator hired by the firm to investigate Pao's complaint concluded there was no gender discrimination at the firm. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

People in China and America alike are watching Ellen Pao's gender discrimination case against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins in California. But they're watching for different reasons.

In America, many on the Internet forums of Reddit, where Pao serves as interim CEO, and on other technology websites, are speculating on a range of topics, from how much money Pao might win to whether she would make a pleasant co-worker.

In China, a lot of the conversation is centered around the wealth and status of Kleiner Perkins.

Pao filed a lawsuit in 2012 stating that after she had ended a relationship and rejected another man's advances, the workplace retaliated against her and denied her promotions and salary bonuses. The suit also said that women in Kleiner Perkins do not advance as often as men do.

The case strikes a lot of the right notes for mainland Chinese who value prestigious Ivy League degrees and elite Silicon Valley jobs.

Their interest in Pao's case stems from considering themselves in place of her former employers who earn at least six figures.

"So, there are some risks to getting a job at Kleiner Perkins," wrote one Chinese netizen on media site Tencent.

Another wrote on Weibo, China's version of Twitter, with a tone of admiration: "How much does a hedge fund manager make in a year? Perhaps tens of millions. You could live in Manhattan."

Meanwhile, the same information has divided American sympathies. Upon learning of Pao's generous salary, some former supporters of Pao's grew more ambivalent.

Many comments on the technology news site Ars Technica remarked that Pao's salary of $400,000 excluding bonuses landed her solidly in at least the top 2 percent of Americans.

Pao claims that she faced retaliation for her complaints against discrimination, by receiving less of a bonus than her colleagues. When defense attorney Lynne Hermle noted that Pao received a salary increase of $40,000 and a bonus of almost $150,000, Pao said she didn't remember.

"Wish I made so much I didn't remember getting a $40k raise," wrote one user on the tech site.

A user on Reddit wrote, "She's the CEO of Reddit and she's trying to sue for more money?"

Pao's case, which appeared at the outset as a simple gender-discrimination case, has drawn more media attention and public scrutiny as more details surfaced and as the defense has attempted to make her appear contradictory and inconsistent during her testimony.

The defense pointed out that Pao willingly slept with Ajit Nazre, a married colleague she has accused of sexual harassment, and wrote emails to him with favorable comments such as "Your thought process is so clean and so quick, it just amazes me."

Defense attorney Lynne Hermle has also suggested that Pao did not lose out on salary bonuses because she was a woman, but because she didn't get along with colleagues and performed poorly as a junior partner.

Pao's lawyers are seeking $16 million in damages, including for lost salary and emotional distress. They are also representing another gender bias case against Facebook, announced earlier this week.

After hearing the details of Pao's discrimination case, a Chinese netizen returned to the discussion of wealth and status, writing on Tencent: "Only a big boss could have gotten away with something like this."

Additional reporting by Frank Fang. Chinese comments were translated into English.

Shannon Liao is a native New Yorker who attended Vassar College and the Bronx High School of Science. She writes business and tech news and is an aspiring novelist.