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Sex Discrimination Trial Puts Silicon Valley Under The Microscope


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Ellen Pao, a former partner at Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, says women were excluded from all-male meetings at the company and denied seats on boards. The firm says she was fired for poor performance.
Image credit: Robert Galbraith

When the venture capital firm that funded Google and Amazon fired Ellen Pao in 2012, it said it let her go because she didn’t have what it takes.

Pao disagreed — and sued her former employer, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, for gender bias and retaliation. The trial, now underway in San Francisco, is providing a rare look into allegations of sex discrimination and the world of venture capital.

In court, Pao’s attorneys have presented performance reviews that describe Pao as too quiet, too aggressive and lacking people skills. But they’ve also shown the jury reviews of male colleagues who received similar feedback — but the male colleagues were promoted.

“What Ellen Pao is saying is that she got caught between being seen as too masculine to be likeable, or too feminine to be competent,” says Joan Williams, a professor at University of California, Hastings College of the Law who specializes in women’s issues in the workplace.

“I don’t know Ellen Pao — maybe she’s impossible,” Williams says. “But yes, this does track a common pattern of gender bias.” And it’s especially common in two industries, Williams says: “Tech and finance. And that’s the particular microclimate we’re dealing with here.”

It’s a microclimate where women at her Silicon Valley venture firm were treated differently, Pao says. They were excluded from all-male events and denied seats on company boards, she’s said in court filings. She also says that a male co-worker with whom she had an affair retaliated against her, and that the company failed to act.

Williams says these kinds of complaints are “old-fashioned stuff” when it comes to gender discrimination in the workplace.

Kleiner Perkins actually has more female partners than the average venture firm. No representative of the company would speak for this story, but Kleiner executive John Doerr testified in court that he thinks companies with women make better decisions.

Phil Sanderson, chair of the Western Association of Venture Capitalists, says a successful investor is good at two things: “Bringing in leads, investing in them and making money. And the second is working well in a collaborative environment with your partners,” he says.

The venture firm claims that Pao couldn’t do that.

“These are really top people — men and women,” says Kay Lucas, an employment attorney in San Francisco who has represented women with discrimination claims like Pao’s. “I have known some of them. I think this particular industry is such a highly competitive industry. … Frankly, I think a whole bunch of them are probably difficult people.

“But I have to say, it’s very often that the women are then forced to leave … once they raise the issue,” she continues. “This is my, frankly, great beef with Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Because when they lean in, they get retaliated against, and they often are forced out of the company. Maybe not terminated, but, ‘You’re not a good fit,’ or whatever.”

Before leaving Kleiner Perkins, Pao filed a formal gender discrimination complaint that alleged much of what she’s suing the company for now. The firm hired an independent investigator to look into it, who found no bias. If the jury disagrees after the trial, expected to continue until late March, Pao stands to win up to $16 million in damages.

Copyright 2015 KALW-FM. To see more, visit http://www.kalw.org/.

Transcript :

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

A trial underway in San Francisco is offering a rare look into the world of venture capital and allegations of sex discrimination. Ellen Pao is seeking $16 million in lost wages and future earnings from her former employer. She took the witness stand last week and said she was passed over for a promotion because she’s a woman and was later fired for complaining. Closing arguments are expected in the next week or two. From member station KALW, Audrey Dilling reports.

AUDREY DILLING, BYLINE: Ellen Pao worked for Kleiner Perkins, the venture firm that funded Google and Amazon. Pao was fired in 2012. The company says it let her go because she didn’t have what it takes. In court, Pao’s attorneys have presented performance reviews that describe Pao as too quiet, too aggressive and lacking people skills. They’ve also shown the jury reviews of male colleagues who received similar feedback, but the male colleagues were promoted.

JOAN WILLIAMS: What Ellen Pao is saying is that she got caught between being seen as too masculine to be likable or too feminine to be competent.

DILLING: Joan Williams is a professor at University of California, Hastings College of the Law. She specializes in women’s issues in the workplace.

WILLIAMS: So, you know, I don’t know Ellen Pao – maybe she’s impossible. But yes, this does track a common pattern of gender bias.

DILLING: Williams says this is especially common in two industries.

WILLIAMS: Tech and finance, and that’s the particular microclimate we’re dealing with here.

DILLING: It’s a microclimate where Ellen Pao says women at her Silicon Valley venture firm were treated differently. They were excluded from all-male events, she says in court filings, and denied seats on company boards. And she says the company failed to do anything about the retaliation of a male coworker she had an affair with. As for that behavior, Williams says…

WILLIAMS: That’s old-fashioned stuff. Now, they – again, they deny it.

DILLING: Kleiner Perkins actually has more female partners than the average venture firm. Kleiner executive John Doerr testified in court that he thinks companies with women make better decisions. No representative of the company would speak for this story. Phil Sanderson chairs the Western Association of Venture Capitalists. He says a successful investor is good at two things.

PHIL SANDERSON: Bringing in leads, investing in them and making money. And the second is working well in a collaborative environment with your partners.

DILLING: The venture firm claims Ellen Pao couldn’t do that.

KAY LUCAS: These are really top people – men and women.

DILLING: Kay Lucas is an employment attorney in San Francisco.

LUCAS: I know – I have known some of them. I think this particular industry is such a highly competitive industry. Frankly, I think a whole bunch of them are probably difficult people.

DILLING: Lucas has represented women with discrimination claims like Ellen Pao’s.

LUCAS: But I have to say, it’s very often that the women are then forced to leave once they raise the issue. And this is my, frankly, great beef with Sheryl Samberg’s “Lean In” because when they lean in, they get retaliated against, and they often are forced out of the company – maybe not terminated, but you’re not a good fit or whatever.

DILLING: Before Pao left Kleiner Perkins, she filed a formal gender discrimination complaint that alleged much of what she’s suing the company for now. The firm hired an independent investigator to look into it. That investigator found no bias. If the jury disagrees, Pao stands to win $16 million in damages. The trial is expected to continue until late March. For NPR News, I’m Audrey Dilling. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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