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Trial Probes Gender Bias in Silicon Valley, V.C. Firm

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Attorneys on Wednesday dug into the corporate culture of one of the Silicon Valley's most prestigious venture capital firms, on the second day of a widely anticipated gender discrimination trial.

Ellen Pao, a former junior partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, claims she was denied a promotion and excluded from business opportunities because she is a woman. The firm fired her in October 2012, five months after she filed the lawsuit.

Pao seeks $16 million in back pay and future wage losses. For its part, Kleiner Perkins says Pao was dismissed because of her performance.

The suit has garnered considerable attention, in part because of the tech industry's reputation for being dominated by men - and for treating women poorly. Also, Kleiner Perkins is a premiere Silicon Valley firm, famous for backing tech giants like Netscape, Google, and Twitter.

On Wednesday morning, plaintiff's attorneys called Chi-Hua Chien, a former colleague of Pao, to the stand. Chien allegedly organized two dinners in 2011 that only included male Kleiner Perkins partners and executives.

According to Pao's complaint, Chien said women were not invited because they would "kill the buzz." Chien denied the allegation on the stand.

Chien was also one of three men who were promoted by Kleiner Perkins in March 2012. Pao alleges that women were not promoted because of gender discrimination and that Pao, in particular, was not promoted because she had repeatedly reported harassment over the years.

But Kleiner Perkins has said it's being targeted unfairly. The firm notes that female partners make up more than a fifth of the firm, and that it backs women-run start ups at more than four times the rate of the rest of the industry, according to the New York Times.

When asked if women's investments at Kleiner Perkins were supported less than men's, Chien responded, "Absolutely not."

He added: "It would be a terrible, terrible decision to make decisions based on anything other than potential profit."

Chien also said that Pao's former boss, acclaimed investor John Doerr, was a "frequent advocate of women in technology."

Wednesday's testimony followed fierce opening arguments on Tuesday.

Pao's attorney, Alan Exelrod, told the jury that "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 Kleiner Perkins leaders, Kleiner Perkins only picked men," CNET reported.

But Kleiner Perkins attorney Lynne Hermle countered that Pao's circumstances had nothing to do with her gender.

"Ellen Pao did not succeed at Kleiner Perkins as an investing professional because she did not have the skills for that job," Hermle said.

Pao came to Kleiner Perkins in 2005 as chief of staff to Doerr, one of the firm's managing partners. In her complaint, Pao lists a variety of abuses during her six years at the firm, including years of "retaliation" by colleague Ajit Nazre, with whom she had a brief affair which she later cut off. Though she reported the alleged harassment, she says the firm didn't take action.

In another instance, a senior partner allegedly gave Pao Leonard Cohen's book "The Book of Longing," which was full of sexual drawings and suggestive poems, as a Valentine's Day present.

Two months after the firm passed Pao over for a promotion, she filed her lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court.

"Following the filing of this lawsuit, the plaintiff continued performing her job well," an amended complaint states. "On Oct. 1, 2012 the plaintiff was told that she was terminated from employment, told to leave that day and not to return."

Pao is now the interim CEO of Reddit.

The trial is expected to last about a month.

Arvin Temkar can be reached by email at [email protected].

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