By Bob Egelko
San Francisco Chronicle.
The trial of a sex discrimination lawsuit against a leading Silicon Valley venture capital firm opened Tuesday with dramatically contrasting portraits of the firm — as a place where women were unfairly denied promotions and benefits, and as a pioneer for equal rights.
“When it came time to pick who would be the next generation of investing partners, Kleiner Perkins only picked men,” Alan Exelrod, a lawyer for plaintiff Ellen Pao, told the San Francisco Superior Court jury.
“When a woman protests sex discrimination … she gets fired.”
Pao was a junior partner at Kleiner Perkins Canfield & Byers from 2005 until October 2012, when she was fired after suing over the denial of her promotion to senior partner, which carries a far greater share of the firm’s investment income.
Her suit alleges that the company promoted men with lesser qualifications, denied her and other women seats on boards of directors at firms in which Kleiner Perkins held investments, and brushed off her complaints about years of harassment by an employee with whom she had a brief sexual relationship.
She was hired as a consultant by Reddit, the sprawling online forum, two months after her firing and is now the firm’s interim chief executive officer.
The suit comes amid a growing number of complaints about a lack of diversity at Silicon Valley tech companies and venture capital firms, which have few women among their leaders. As of the date of Pao’s departure, Exelrod said, Kleiner Perkins had promoted only one woman from junior to senior partner in its 42-year history, had hired one other woman as a senior partner and had never had a female managing partner.
Lynne Hermle, Kleiner Perkins’ attorney, painted a much different picture of both the firm and Pao.
Kleiner Perkins “has been at the forefront of recruiting and supporting women throughout the tech industry,” she told the jury.
She said the firm has invested in companies owned by women and supported placing women on boards of directors. Kleiner Perkins’ chief financial officer, Susan Biglieri, has worked for the company for 25 years, and another woman, Mary Meeker, is a chief of its investing programs, Hermle said. And, she said, an expert’s study of 813 venture capital firms ranked Kleiner Perkins first in hiring, recruiting and supporting women.
As for Pao, Hermle said she was denied a promotion “because she didn’t have the necessary skills” for a senior investment position. Management evaluations from 2007 onward also criticized Pao’s personal interactions, Hermle said — one anonymous critique in 2007-08 said that “at any moment in time, Ellen is not getting along with someone,” a critique two years later said she “seems to have a sense of entitlement,” and an assessment the next year said she was “not viewed as a good team member.”
But Exelrod quoted similar language in evaluations of male employees — one was urged to be “less critical and quick to judgment,” another “comes across as arrogant” — and said they were among three men promoted to senior partner in 2011. At the same time, he said, the firm denied promotions to three women, including Pao, whose work had led to Kleiner Perkins’ successful investment in the patent-risk management firm RPX.
Pao, who had worked as a lawyer and spent seven years at technology firms, was hired in 2005 at age 35 as chief of staff to John Doerr, a Kleiner Perkins managing partner. Her job included speech writing and administrative tasks, but Exelrod said Pao wanted to work in investments and was given assurances that “she would become an investment partner, over time.”
He said her investment work was sometimes credited to others, like the male senior partner who was given a seat on the RPX board of directors.
Doerr praised her work, calling her “exceptionally talented” in a 2007 evaluation, and later fought to keep her at the company when other senior managers wanted to fire her, Exelrod said.
He attributed their antagonism to her complaints about discrimination and harassment — in particular, by Ajit Nazre, the co-worker with whom she had a brief affair in 2006 after what Exelrod described as unrelenting pressure and lies about his marriage.
Despite similar complaints by another female employee, Exelrod said, Nazre was promoted to senior partner in 2008. He left after the women resumed their complaints and the company conducted an investigation.