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At Silicon Valley sex bias trial, executive says she saw no discrimination

February 26, 2015, 9:52 PM UTC

A top executive at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins defended her colleagues in a case accusing them of gender discrimination by saying she never experienced any bias.

Susan Biglieri, chief financial officer at Kleiner Perkins, an early investor in tech companies like Google and Yahoo, acknowledged having discussed problems at work with a colleague, Ellen Pao, who has sued the firm for passing her over for a promotion because of an alleged culture that minimized the work of women. But Biglieri said those problems had nothing do with discrimination without mentioning the topics they actually discussed.

It was day three testimony in the case, which is being closely followed in Silicon Valley. Pao, who left Kleiner shortly after filing the suit in 2012, claims a colleague, Ajit Nazre, pressured her into a sexual relationship. After complaining, she alleges the firm retaliated against her by failing to promote her to senior partner while three other men who were hired after her were given the title.

So far the trial has been a back and forth with Pao trying to paint Kleiner Perkins as a hotbed of bias while Kleiner’s attorneys hammer home the idea that Pao simply didn’t have the skills necessary for a promotion. Her performance reviews labeled her as “territorial,” “not 100% reliable with my back” and “sharp elbowed,” although managers also used that language in the reviews of the three men who were promoted.

This morning’s testimony however, took a step back from the back and forth about Pao to examine the gender dynamics at the firm at-large. Firm but cautious on the witness stand, she said she had never experienced gender discrimination since her hiring at Kleiner Perkins in 1989.

Despite Biglieri’s testimony, the portrait of a largely male-dominated firm is emerging with few female partners. In 2005, Aileen Lee was the first female junior partner promoted to a senior partner, for example. In the upper echelons, the imbalance was even more pronounced. Among fund managers, there were no women until 2011 when the firm appointed Mary Meeker nor female general partners until 2012.

Biglieri characterized Kleiner Perkins as similar to other venture capital firms in terms of female hires (read: very low numbers) until about 2000.

Pao’s attorney honed in on the firm’s anti-discrimination policy. Because Kleiner Perkins has no human resources department, Biglieri was put in charge of the anti-discrimination policy as far back as the 1980s. But it was kept in a payroll drawer and not disseminated. New hires were made aware of its existence in their offer letter. But they had to specifically see Biglieri to read the policy. This did not change until 2012, when Ellen Pao and coworker Trae Vassallo complained about harassment. In response, the firm wrote a new policy.

In the afternoon, Ted Schlein, a Kleiner Perkins managing partner, took to the stand and repeatedly said he could not remember relevant details. He could not recall performance reviews he’d helped write about Pao, and email exchanges he’d had about her and with her. What he did remember was the following: Pao was very helpful in setting up Kleiner Perkins’s China office, that there was always controversy swirling around her, and that he did not think being a venture capitalist was the right role for her.

“I worried if this was the right career path for her,” Schlein told the jury. “We had that conversation multiple times.”

In 2009 Pao considered leaving Kleiner Perkins and interviewed with Google’s venture capital arm. But she was ultimately offered a role on Schlein’s digital team, a role that he said he was hesitant about.

Further examination focused on Pao’s performance review for 2010 through 2011. A primary draft read “As of today you are not on track to become a senior partner…we recommend you find a role in operations.” However, in an email to Schlein, fellow venture capitalist John Doerr wrote, “I don’t know how a junior partner could have had a better year than Ellen.” The review was subsequently changed to say: “While you have made progress on internal relationships, some still exist…You must overcome these issues to be on track to be a senior partner.”

Pao’s attorney also focused on what could become an important point in the trial: The fact that Pao’s alleged harasser, Ajit Nazre, a senior partner at the firm, contributed to her 2011 performance review that helped to damage her career there. But his name was not listed among those who gave feedback. Pao has alleged that Nazre pressured her into an intimate relationship and then, after it ended, tried to undermine her.

(This story was updated with additional information)