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Pao v. Kleiner: Silicon Valley Gender Discrimination Trial Begins

Reddit CEO leaves a San Francisco courtroom on Tuesday. (KGO screen grab)

Reddit CEO leaves a San Francisco courtroom on Tuesday. (KGO screen grab)

It is no secret that the tech and finance industries are dominated by men. Now, one prominent Silicon Valley investment firm is on trial, accused by a former executive of terminating her for speaking out against gender discrimination.

Reuters reports Ellen Pao, formerly a junior partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a venture capital firm that has backed tech giants including Amazon and Google, alleges her former employer denied her promotions after she complained about sexual harassment by a male partner.

Appearing in a San Francisco court on Tuesday, Pao’s attorney Alan Exelrod said in his opening statement that Kleiner had only promoted one woman to senior investing partner by 2011, after more than 40 years in business.

“Was there a level playing field for Ellen Pao at Kleiner Perkins?” Exelrod said to the jury. “We will prove to you in this case that there was not.”

According to Pao’s complaint, some of the more blatant discrimination she experienced involved being excluded from male-only company events:

In early 2011, KPCB partners led by Chi-Hua Chien organized a dinner at the San Francisco home of one of the partners. The dinner was for select KPCB partners and leading executives at KPCB-funded companies… Only male KPCB partners and male executives were invited and attended. Mr. Chien deliberately excluded all KPCB women… solely on the basis of their gender.

Mr. Chien organized a second all-male dinner at the same partner’s home in August 2011. Women were excluded for the same reason. At a weekly… partner meeting before the second dinner, [KPCB partner John Doerr] brought up the all-male dinner in response to a female partner’s complaint; Mr. Chien replied that women were not invited because they would “kill the buzz.”

The New York Times reports Pao is seeking as much as $16 million in damages to replace the income she says she was deprived of earning at Kleiner.

Kleiner lawyer Lynne Hermle countered that the firm has an outstanding record of recruiting women, including executives, and invests in businesses started by women. Pao was not promoted, Hermle argued, because she lacked the requisite skills to be an investing partner.

“She did not come close,” Hermle asserted, adding that Pao “lacked the ability to lead others, build consensus and be a team player, which is crucial to a successful career as a venture capital senior investing partner.”

Hermle claimed that Doerr has been “on a mission” to advocate for women’s advancement in Silicon Valley. She accused Pao of attempting to “twist facts, circumstances and events” in order to bolster her claim of gender discrimination at the firm.

Pao, who is currently employed as interim chief executive at reddit, alleged in her lawsuit that her standing at Kleiner plummeted after she had a brief romantic relationship with colleague Ajit Nazre, who has also since left the company.

The Pao-Kleiner trial has sparked intense debate in Silicon Valley and beyond about what critics are calling the dark side of tech work culture, one in which women are victims of systemic discrimination and rampant sexism. Lately there are nearly constant accusations and revelations of tech industry men behaving badly—sometimes incredibly so—toward women, often with impunity. After a series of shockingly sexist emails from Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel emerged last year, he still had no trouble securing $10 billion in new funding. Among the new investors was Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

In some ways, Pao was already one of the lucky ones when she made partner at Kleiner. According to a 2014 report from the Diana Project, which studies female entrepreneurship, the total number of female partners at venture capital firms has actually declined over the course of the 21st century, from 10 percent in 1999 to six percent last year.

The number of women studying computer sciences is also pitifully small, and in many cases only two to four percent of engineers at tech companies are female. Many women feel intimidated by the “brogrammer” culture at too many tech firms. Julie Ann Horvath, formerly an engineer at GitHub, quit in disgust last year.

“My only regret is not leaving or being fired sooner,” Horvath tweeted after her departure. “What I endured as an employee of GitHub was unacceptable and went unnoticed by most.”

“I had a really hard time getting used to the culture, the aggressive communication on pull requests and how little the men I worked with respected and valued my opinion,” she told TechCrunch. Horvath says she was once left “shaking in horror” after a company founder’s wife intimidated her at her work station after she complained about the firm’s deeply entrenched sexism.

Kate Losse, an early Facebook employee and author of The Boy Kings: A Journey Into the Heart of the Social Network, told the Los Angeles Times that despite the overall progress of women in recent decades, much remains as it was during bygone days when sexism and misogyny barely and rarely raised eyebrows or ire.

“At a time when the technology industry is becoming increasingly important, I think it’s important to focus on what hasn’t changed and what is still very traditional about this world, what isn’t so revolutionary and so progressive,” said Losse.

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