Eric Risberg / AP

Silicon Valley gender lawsuit heads to closing arguments

The landmark case has sparked a broad discussion about sexism in the tech startup scene

A landmark Silicon Valley sex bias case that has forced venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers to air awkward details about its operations headed into closing arguments Tuesday after four weeks of testimony.

A California jury will decide if Kleiner Perkins sexually discriminated against Ellen Pao and retaliated after she complained.

A judge ruled over the weekend that Pao may seek punitive damages that could add millions of dollars to a possible verdict in her favor. She is seeking $16 million in lost wages and bonuses.

The case has helped spark a broad discussion about sexism in the tech startup scene.

It has also laid bare the personnel matters of the firm, which gave financial backing to Google and Amazon, painting it as a quarrelsome pressure cooker where a former male partner used business trips as opportunities to make advances to female colleagues.

Pao, now interim chief executive at the online message board giant Reddit, says her standing at Kleiner crumbled after she ended a brief affair with partner Ajit Nazre. Her career deteriorated after he and Kleiner started retaliating against her, her lawyers argue. 

The firm vigorously disputes those charges, presenting evidence that Kleiner went out of its way to hire women.

Pao’s attorneys have portrayed her as the victim of a male-dominated culture at Kleiner Perkins, where she was excluded from an all-male dinner at the home of former Vice President Al Gore, was asked to take notes like a secretary at a meeting and was subjected to talk about pornography aboard a private plane.

After she complained, she said, the firm hired a biased investigator who dismissed her allegations. When she sued, she said, the firm fired her in 2012.

Kleiner Perkins countered that Pao was a chronic complainer who twisted facts and circumstances in her lawsuit and had a history of conflicts with colleagues that contributed to the decision to let her go. She also didn’t cut it when her job shifted to mostly investing in 2010, they say.

But Pao’s attorneys argue she laid the groundwork for the firm’s highly successful investment in RPX, the patent company, as well as suggesting an investment in Twitter, an idea more senior partners rejected.

Industrywide problem

During the trial, Pao and officials with Kleiner Perkins addressed the larger issue of gender inequities in the venture capital sector, where women are even more underrepresented than they are in the technology sector.

Pao told jurors that her lawsuit was intended in part to create equal opportunities for women in the venture capital sector.

Paul Gompers, a Harvard Business School professor, was hired by Kleiner Perkins to conduct research about the venture capital industry. He testified that Kleiner Perkins placed more women on the boards of companies in which it invested than any of the 3,000 other venture capital firms that he reviewed.

However, a study released last year by Babson College in Massachusetts found that women filled just 6 percent of partner-level positions at 139 venture capital firms in 2013, down from 10 percent in 1999.

Since Pao’s case began generating headlines, more venture capital firms have called seeking female candidates for partner-level positions, said Joe Riggione, a co-founder of True, an executive search firm for venture capital and technology companies.

Over the past two years, technology and venture capital firms have become more open to discussing gender and racial inequity, said Nicole Sanchez, the founder of Vaya Consulting, which tries to help Silicon Valley companies increase diversity.

She said that’s due in part to a decision by Google and other technology giants to release data about the demographic makeup of their workforces. The numbers weren’t good: Women hold just 15 to 20 percent of tech jobs at Google, Apple, Facebook and Yahoo.

Sanchez said a verdict in favor of Pao could shake Silicon Valley.

“The fear it will strike in the hearts of companies in Silicon Valley depends on the verdict and the damage amount, how much it’s going to hurt them,” she said.

Jurors are expected to begin deliberating after closing arguments.

Wire services

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