Trial begins in high-profile Silicon Valley sex bias case
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A lawyer for a former junior partner suing a venture capital firm in a Silicon Valley sex bias suit contended Tuesday that his client was passed over for promotions because she was a woman and then fired after she complained.
In his opening trial statement, attorney Alan Exelrod described a male-dominated culture at Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and 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 his client, 45-year-old Ellen Pao, had received erotic poetry and sketches of nude women from a senior partner at the firm, and another male employee had interfered with her work when Pao broke off an affair with him.
"Kleiner Perkins used Ellen Pao's many talents for six years, but when it came time to pick who would be the next generation of investing leaders at Kleiner Perkins, Kleiner only picked men," the attorney told jurors.
The firm has denied wrongdoing and says Pao was a poor performer who didn't get along with her colleagues.
In addition, 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.
The jury also heard from witness Trae Vassallo, another female employee at Kleiner Perkins. She testified that she was sexually harassed by a male employee and initially passed over for promotion. However, she later advanced to general partner.
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.
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 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.
Pao left the administrative position with Doerr in 2010 to become a junior partner with full-time investment duties.
Exelrod said she was excluded from a dinner at the home of former Vice President Al Gore — a partner at the firm — after another Kleiner partner told her "women killed the buzz," and also was subjected to a conversation about pornography that a Kleiner partner did not stop, the lawyer said.
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.
The trial in San Francisco Superior Court in front of a jury of five men and seven women could last four weeks.
The change came about six months after hackers obtained nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence and other celebrities and posted them to social media sites including Reddit.
Reddit was spun off in 2012 from Conde Nast's Wired Digital.
AP Technology Writer Michael Liedtke and AP writer Paul Elias in San Francisco contributed to this report.