Trials & Litigation

Silicon Valley agog as trial looms in high-profile sex-discrimination case against Kleiner Perkins

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Ellen Pao’s resume includes a stint as an associate at Cravath Swaine & Moore as well as a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Princeton University and dual graduate degrees, in law and business, from Harvard University.

But she didn’t have what it takes to succeed at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the storied venture capital firm contends. In a hard-fought, high-profile case that has Silicon Valley agog as it appears poised for trial, former partner Ellen Pao is seeking $16 million in back pay and punitive damages, contending that she was frozen out when she complained of discrimination, according to the Bloomberg, New York Times (reg. req.), the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News and USA Today. The firm says it did nothing wrong.

Pao, now 45, says she was pressured into having sex with a married colleague. He retaliated against her when she ended it and was promoted, Pao contends. She eventually lost her job after complaining about claimed discrimination by her former colleague and others.

In a pretrial filing, Kleiner Perkins says the affair was consensual, denies any discrimination and contends Pao “lacked the ability to lead others, build consensus and be a team player, which is crucial to a successful career as a venture capital senior investing partner.”

Regardless of the merits of the case, there is a widespread sense by a number of observers that women struggle to succeed in the male-dominated Silicon Valley technology world and keen interest in how the unusual public challenge to a major company’s culture will be resolved.

“The facts of the case are likely to be mixed and messy, but regardless of the outcome, the expense of litigation–not just in terms of money but in reputation–is likely to serve as a warning for all venture capital firms,” law professor Deborah Rhode of Stanford University told the Mercury News. The venture capital community, she said, has “a really dispiriting history around gender equity. The lack of women participating, especially at higher levels, is really distasteful.”

In fact, with women representing some 20 percent of its partnership roster, the Kleiner firm is doing better on that front than many of its competitors, the article points out.

A pre-trial conference in Pao’s case is scheduled Tuesday in San Francisco Superior Court and jury selection is to begin Wednesday.

Related coverage: “Still in ‘Caveman Era’? Ex-BigLaw Associate with Star Credentials Sues Venture Capital Firm” “Lawyer Suing for Sex Discrimination Says She Was Fired; Firm Calls It ‘Facilitating Her Transition’” “Venture capital firm can’t require attorney to arbitrate claim in high-profile discrimination case”

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