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Arguments start in high-profile Silicon Valley sexism case: Incompetence or bias?

Ellen PaoEllen Pao
Ellen Pao

Half an hour before her gender discrimination case against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins began Tuesday, Ellen Pao stood with a small knot of people: her mother, her sister, and a member of her defense team. “You have a strong daughter,” the attorney said.

Strength is going to be a prerequisite to get through what is expected to be a highly public month-long trial over Pao’s accusations that Kleiner Perkins, one of Silicon Valley’s best known investment firms, had passed her over for a promotion to senior partner because of sexism. Filings in the case include everything from text messages about her intimate relationship with a co-worker to excerpts from her performance reviews.

In their opening statements to the court, the two sides presented very different pictures to the jury in San Francisco’s Superior Court.

Alan Exelrod, Pao’s attorney, drew a picture of a company riddled with sexism. Female employees were asked to take notes at company meetings, he said. Meanwhile, the firm’s leaders promoted male junior partners while passing over women with more experience. Furthermore, Ajit Nazre a male coworker who had an intimate relationship with Pao and allegedly made advances toward another coworker, Trae Vassallo, was protected and promoted while Pao and Vassallo suffered retaliation.

Meanwhile, Lynne Hermle, Kleiner Perkins’ attorney, asserted that the firm is a leader among venture capitalists in its support of women. A study she cited found that Kleiner Perkins ranks first in hiring and supporting women – in stark contrast to another 644 venture capital firms that had no women at all.

Instead, Hermle called into question Pao’s competence, saying: “Pao didn’t have the necessary skills for the job. She didn’t even come close.”

Hermle went on to detail the biographies of the woman who had made it as senior partners at Kleiner Perkins: Mary Meeker who had 19 years of Morgan Stanley experience and published “the Bible of internet investing;” and Beth Sidenberg who has a resume studded with medical degree, post grad education at Johns Hopkins University, and had served as chief medical officer at pharmaceutical giant Amgen.

Her point? Despite Pao’s impressive academic credentials—graduating from Harvard business and law schools with honors—she was not up to scratch when it came to the actual job requirements demanded for an investment role. She quoted a series of performance reviews, dating from when Pao started at Kleiner Perkins, pointing out that Pao was not a team player and that she was “a great service provider but not 100% trustworthy with my back.”

Pao, who filed her suit against Kleiner Perkins in 2012, left the firm several months later. She is currently interim CEO of Reddit, the online bulletin board.

Later, on the stand, Vassallo, a colleague at Kleiner Perkins, gave supporting testimony for Pao’s case that Kleiner Perkins was a hotbed of discrimination. At one point, she thought she was on track for a promotion to senior partner. In a performance review, a superior had described her as being among the “top 1% of venture capitalists.” But Vassallo was ultimately passed over for senior partner and has since downshifted her role at the firm to strategic advisor.

Vassallo also told of a few awkward episodes with Kleiner Perkins then senior partner Nazre. She said he invited her for drinks one night to discuss strategy. But during the evening, he started to make advances, which she rebuffed and described as deeply upsetting. Later he invited her to a business meeting in New York City to meet DoubleClick CEO, David Rosenblatt. However, Rosenblatt never showed and Nazre later knocked on Vassallo’s door wearing a bathrobe and slippers, asking to be let in. She dismissed these incidents until Nazre was put in charge of performance review. Vassallo complained to Kleiner Perkins’ management, who launched an internal investigation that ultimately corroborated her account and led to Nazre leaving the company.

As the two sides in the case volleyed back and forth, they touched on questions being asked in boardrooms and executive suites across the country: How good do women have to be to succeed at a firm like Kleiner Perkins, which says it takes the best of the best?

Pao alleged that the VC firm, which invested early in companies like Google and Yahoo, doesn’t have a level playing field. But to the firm, Pao, the woman with a sterling resume and double Harvard honors, didn’t have what it takes to be successful.

(This story was updated with additional information)