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Attorney: Silicon Valley firm discriminated against woman

February 24, 2015

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The trial of a high-profile sex bias lawsuit in Silicon Valley began Tuesday with a lawyer for a former junior partner at a venture capital firm claiming his client was denied a promotion because of her gender and then fired when she complained.

In his opening statement, lawyer Alan Exelrod said plaintiff Ellen Pao was discriminated against in the male-dominated culture of Kleiner, Perkins, Caulfield & Byers — the defendant in the case that has sparked debate over the treatment of women in the high-tech and venture capitalist arenas.

Exelrod said Pao, 45, had received erotic poetry and sketches of nude women from a senior partner at the firm, and another male employee interfered with her work when Pao broke off an affair with him.

The firm has denied wrongdoing and said Pao was a poor performer who didn’t get along with her colleagues.

Defense lawyer Lynne Hermle, citing a study by a Harvard professor, said in her opening statement that the company has been a leader in recruiting and supporting women in technology.

“Ellen Pao did not succeed at Kleiner Perkins as an investing professional because she did not have the necessary skills for that job,” Hermle said. “She did not come close.”

Pao is seeking $16 million in damages. The firm is seeking to limit any possible damages by arguing that Pao is well-compensated in her current position as interim CEO of the popular social media company Reddit and hasn’t suffered financially since leaving Kleiner after filing her lawsuit.

Venture capital firms provide much of the startup funds for tech companies and have a reputation as being even more insular and male-dominated than the companies they help launch.

“The case has sparked a much-needed debate about gender inequality regardless of its merit,” said Stanford University professor Deborah Rhode, who teaches gender equity law.

Women hold 15 to 20 percent of the technology jobs at tech giants Google, Apple, Facebook and Yahoo, according to disclosures by the companies.

The firms acknowledge needing to do more to hire female engineers but largely attribute the problem to cultural issues that discourage girls and young women from taking classes needed to pursue careers in computer coding and website design.

Venture capital firms are even more slanted toward men. A 2011 survey by the National Venture Capital Association found women accounted for 11 percent of investors.

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

Kleiner fired Pao in 2012 — six months after she filed her lawsuit. She had been hired in 2005 to serve as chief of staff for senior partner John Doerr, who helped direct early investments in Google and Amazon and who currently serves on President Barack Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board.

Pao left the administrative position with Doerr in 2010 to become a junior partner with full-time investment duties.

Pao claims she was excluded from important meetings, email chains and company dinners because women “kill the buzz” of such festive occasions, according to the lawsuit.

Hermle, however, said Pao “repeatedly and consistently seeks to twist facts, circumstances and events.”

She said Pao did not indicate at the time she received the poetry book that she thought it was inappropriate, and the book had been purchased by the partner’s wife.

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AP Technology Writer Michael Liedtke in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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