Closing Arguments Shape Silicon Valley Bias Case

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – In Tuesday’s closing arguments for a closely watched Silicon Valley gender discrimination case, attorneys painted wildly different portraits of Ellen Pao, the woman suing venerated venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.
     Pao claims, among other things, that the firm didn’t promote her because she’s a woman and retaliated against her by firing her a few months after she filed the 2012 lawsuit.
     “We are all here today because Kleiner Perkins broke the law,” said Pao attorney Alan Exelrod, of Rudy, Exelrod, Zieff & Lowe. “The evidence compels the conclusion that men were judged by one standard and women by another.”
     Exelrod described Pao as a hardworking and productive employee who “generated more revenue than any of the other men” who received promotions over her. He touted her role in several projects, including developing business in China and her interest in funding Twitter – though that funding was initially denied.
     “There’s a real irony here,” the attorney quipped to jurors, “because your verdict is going to be announced to those people and the world on Twitter.”
     But Kleiner Perkins’ attorney Lynne Hermle, of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, cast doubt on Pao’s claims and her character.
     “Like so many misplaced accusations you’ve heard in the course of this trial, these claims are simply a continuation of Ellen Pao’s attempts to blame others for her own failings,” Hermle said.
     She referenced performance reviews that called Pao “caustic” and “dictatorial,” and told the jury that Pao was not “fit for the team-based culture” needed for venture capitalism.
     Hermle said that Pao had trouble working with others and didn’t make efforts to improve when criticized in performance reviews.
     “Maybe because of her record of academic achievements she was already a success in her own mind,” Hermle said.
     Pao, who is now interim CEO of Reddit, has a Bachelor’s degree from Princeton University and a law degree and a Master’s degree in business from Harvard. She’s suing for $16 million in lost wages and future earnings, but the payoff could balloon by tens of millions because Judge Harold Kahn ruled last weekend that Pao can also sue for punitive damages.
     The trial has received national attention, particularly because of its reverberations in the tech world, often criticized as being a “boy’s club.”
     Pao’s descriptions of her experience at the firm include enduring an uncomfortable plane ride in which male co-workers talked about porn stars; a dinner with former Vice President Al Gore that no women were invited to because women allegedly “kill the buzz;” and a co-worker’s gift of a sexually explicit book on Valentine’s Day.
     Pao also claims that another co-worker with whom she had a brief affair with but broke off after discovering that he was still married was fired after another woman complained about his alleged sexual advances.
     Today, at the tail-end of the month-long trial, the courtroom was so packed with observers some had to stand while others sat on cabinets or on the floor.
     Exelrod shot at the heart of the matter, claiming that Kleiner Perkins’ male leaders “ran Kleiner Perkins like a boys’ club.”
     Even John Doerr, a famed venture capitalist who has been lauded as supporting women in tech, had a part to play in the company’s “double standard” toward women, Exelrod said.
     As Pao’s boss, Doerr developed a mentor-mentee relationship with her for several years before their relationship soured.
     Exelrod argued that if Doerr was so committed to diversity, why was “virtually every junior partner who was hired” a man?
     “We’re looking for commitments to diversity, not lip service,” the attorney said.
     But Hermle countered, stating that Doerr listened and asked for Pao’s input when she went to him with concerns about the company’s culture. And because Pao was close to Doerr, she got “opportunity after opportunity after opportunity from the time she walked into the door,’ Hermle said.
     Pao was even paid more than other than her colleagues because of her background, Hermle said.
     “There may be discrimination in venture capitalism,” Hermle said, “but there was and is no gender discrimination at Kleiner Perkins, where strong and accomplished women continue to succeed.”
     All of the Kleiner Perkins women who were brought to the stand to testify denied that gender discrimination existed at the company, she added.
     Pao was eventually fired not because of her lawsuit but because she didn’t make a good employee, she said.
     Hermle will continue her closing arguments Wednesday, followed by a chance to rebut by Pao’s team.

     Contact Arvin Temkar at sanfran@courthousenews.com

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