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Labor & Employment

Still in ‘Caveman Era’? Ex-BigLaw Associate with Star Credentials Sues Venture Capital Firm

Posted Jun 5, 2012 4:33 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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In a case that shows, if the plaintiff's account of the facts is correct, how far women still have to go to be treated fairly in some Silicon Valley circles, a former Cravath Swaine & Moore associate with star credentials says she suffered sexual harassment and retaliation after she joined a San Francisco venture capital firm as a junior partner.

Ellen Pao has an engineering degree from Princeton University and a law degree and master's in business administration from Harvard University, among other sterling qualifications, according to the complaint (PDF) she filed last month in San Francisco Superior Court.

But when she joined Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, she contends in the lawsuit, another junior partner with more seniority and some supervisory authority over her pressured her for sex. After resisting, then briefly succumbing, she refused his further advances and says that a five-year campaign of retaliation began.

"When plaintiff reported [the other junior partner's] actions, she was told that it was unfair, that it would never have happened to a male partner, but that she should just accept it," the suit says.

Those in charge of the company forced Pao to continue working with her harasser, promoting him to a position in which he supervised her, and one even suggested that she should marry him, contends the suit, which was filed by Rudy Exelrod Zieff & Lowe in San Francisco. He has since left the company.

Meanwhile, the suit says, Pao was excluded from business-related events to which only men from Kleiner Perkins, but not their female colleagues, were invited. Other women also suffered from discriminatory treatment, including sexual harassment, and pay inequities, she alleges in the suit.

A lengthy New York Times (reg. req.) article about the case says it is reverberating throughout Silicon Valley.

Although its allegations of course have not yet been proven, the suit "depicts venture capitalists here as a group of 21st-century men who may be hard at work building the 22nd century but, when it comes to dealing with women in the workplace, are stuck firmly in the caveman era—or at least in the 1950s," the newspaper writes. "It’s a portrait that many women in tech find all too familiar."

While the suit's claims that the tech industry remains a man's world strikes a chord with a number of women, according to the Times, a lawyer for Kleiner Perkins says the litigation has no merit and supporters of the junior partner claim he is essentially a victim being unfairly portrayed as a harasser after a consensual affair with Pao.

The venture firm hasn't yet answered Pao's complaint, and its lawyer, Lynne C. Hermle, apparently didn't discuss it with the newspaper in detail.

“If you believe every allegation in the complaint, it’s appalling and an important window into how the valley works,” author David A. Kaplan, who wrote The Silicon Boys in 1999 told the Times. “But I’m somewhat skeptical. The clichés you hear in the valley are about the pranks, the obsessiveness, the Foosball tables. You don’t really hear about randiness and mistreatment of women. That doesn’t prove it’s not there, but that’s not the lore.”

The Am Law Daily (reg. req.) also has a story.

Hat tip: Above the Law.

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