Longstanding allegations that women are routinely discriminated against in Silicon Valley were being aired in open court on Tuesday when a former venture capital executive began a $16m sexual discrimination lawsuit against top tech investor Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.
Ellen Pao, 45, who worked for Kleiner Perkins between 2005 and 2012, claimed the firm held back her career and excluded her from meetings after she complained about harassment by a married male colleague with whom she claimed she was pressured into having an affair. She has accused Kleiner Perkins of treating her “despicably, maliciously, fraudulently and oppressively”.
Among Pao’s claims was the allegation that she, and other women, were excluded from an important Kleiner Perkins dinner because they would “kill the buzz”. She also claims that women were barred from work trips on private jets to ski resorts, and were regularly excluded from important meetings or ignored and asked to take notes.
Kleiner Perkins denies all the allegations. It said Pao, who is now interim chief executive of Reddit, failed at the company because she could not lead others and was not a team player. The firm, which was an early investor in Google and Amazon, also pointed out that 20% of its senior partners are women and said it invests in startups run by women at four times the rate of the wider industry.
While there have been many claims of sexual harassment and discrimination in Silicon Valley, this is the first high-profile case not to have been settled out of court before trial.
On Tuesday Pao’s attorney, Alan Exelrod, told the jury at San Francisco Superior Court that “Kleiner Perkins had promoted just one woman to senior investing partner by 2011, despite being in business for about 40 years.
“Was there a level playing field for Ellen Pao at Kleiner Perkins?” Exelrod said. “We will prove to you in this case that there was not.
“She [Pao], like the men, has a science background. An engineering degree from Princeton. She, like the men, has a business degree. A business degree from Harvard.”
“Kleiner Perkins used Ellen Pao’s talents for six years, but when it came time to choose the next generation of leaders at Kleiner Perkins, Kleiner only chose men,” according to the San Jose Mercury News’s liveblog of the opening statements from inside the courtroom.
Exelrod said Ajit Nazre, the Kleiner Perkins with whom Pao had an affair, wanted to “punish” her after she ended the relationship. He claimed Pao was excluded from meetings and emails. The couple first had sex at a work event, according to court papers.
In another instance, Exelrod claimed that on Valentine’s Day in 2007 senior Kleiner Perkins partner Randy Komisar gave Pao a signed copy of Leonard Cohen’s The Book of Longing which she took as sexual advance. “The problem was the book had very erotic poetry in it and Cohen’s many sketches of naked women,” the attorney said.
In court papers, Kosimar has said that the book was a return gift after Pao gave him a statue of a Buddha. Kosimar said his wife picked out the Cohen book as the appropriate gift.
Lynne Hermle, attonery for Kleiner Perkins, accused Pao of twisting the facts. “There is an entirely different explanation for Ellen Pao’s clear failure to succeed as a venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins,” she said in the defence’s opening statement, according to the Mercury’s liveblog. “Ellen Pao fails to meet her burden of proof even though she repeatedly and consistently seeks to twist facts, circumstances and events.
“Pao did not succeed at Kleiner Perkins as an investing professional because she didn’t have the necessary skills for the job. She did not come close. Despite her own belief that she was outstanding in those areas, the evidence will show that just isn’t true.”
The defence said Kleiner Perkins founder John Doerr had made it his “mission” to increase the number of women in venture capital.
Women hold 11% of executive positions at Silicon Valley companies compared to 16% across the top 100 Standard & Poor’s firms, according to a report by law firm Fenwick & West. Silicon Valley firms board’s are on average 15.7% female compared with 20.9% in the S&P 100.
“Most of the companies that released data publicly acknowledged that the numbers reveal ample room for improvement, and many of them committed to increasing the number of women and minorities in the workplace,” the report said.
Venture capital firms are even less diverse than the technology companies in which they invest. Babson College’s Diana Report, a research initiative working to increase the number of female entrepreneurs, found that the number of female partners in VC firms decreased from 10% in 1999 to 6% in 2014.
The report found that 97% of VC-funded businesses had male chief executives, and businesses with all-male teams are more than four times more likely to receive VC funding as teams with one or more women.
Several technology workers were excused from the jury, which is made up of five men and seven women and includes a physical therapist, a male prison nurse, a Genentech manager, a painter and a teacher’s assistant.
The case continues.
This article was written by Rupert Neate in New York, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 24th February 2015 20.03 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010