Kleiner Perkins goes on the attack in Silicon Valley sexism trial

March 11, 2015, 12:26 AM UTC
Ellen Pao, Therese Lawless
Ellen Pao, right, leaves the Civic Center Courthouse along with her attorney, Therese Lawless, left, during a lunch break in her trial Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015, in San Francisco. A jury heard opening arguments Tuesday in a multi-million dollar sexual harassment lawsuit filed by the current interim chief of the news and social media site Reddit against a prominent Silicon Valley venture capital firm. Pau is seeking $16 milion in her suit against Kleiner Perkins Caulfield and Byers, alleging she was sexually harassed by male officials. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
Photograph by Eric Risberg — AP

An attorney for venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins went on the offensive against Ellen Pao, the woman suing the partnership for sexism, by trying to paint her as underperforming employee who deserved to be fired.

Time and again, the attorney, Lynn Hermle, took aim at Pao’s story that she was passed over promotions because of her gender, coerced into an affair with a colleague and then retaliated against for ending the relationship.

“By your own view, you weren’t successful during your own time at Kleiner Perkins?” the attorney asked during testimony Tuesday in San Francisco Superior Court.

Answering calmly and directly from the witness stand, Pao said that yes, she did indeed do a good job. But the male partners failed to give her credit.

The case, which is in third week, is being closely followed in Silicon Valley, providing a window into the inner-workings of one of the technology industry’s top-tier investment firms. Kleiner Perkins, an early investor in such high-fliers as Google and Genentech, has argued that Pao’s accusations about being mistreated are unfounded and that she was too prickly to be a venture capitalist.

From Monday morning until mid-day Tuesday, Pao had told her side of the case: That she preformed well but faced daunting obstacles in a firm run like an old boys club like being asked by male colleagues to take notes and left out off the guest list of a dinner at former Vice President Al Gore’s house. She said she complained about her treatment to Kleiner Perkins – including being coerced into the affair – but was repeatedly ignored or retaliated against by being ostracized.

Pao, who filed suit against Kleiner Perkins in 2012, is seeking $16 million.

But Tuesday afternoon, after the defense took over, Pao found herself on the defensive. Hermle called out several small inconsistencies between her professional aspirations as described in court and what she said in her pre-trial depositions. Although minor, the attorney used the opportunity to lecture Pao, a graduate of Harvard law school and former attorney, that she should know not to lie under oath. Soon after, she called into question’s Pao’s investing skills and success.

Pao’s claims that she was pressured into a relationship with Nazre and that he became noticeably difficult after it ended, also began to unravel. Hermle carefully read over several friendly – almost flirty – email exchanges between the two from before they began a relationship, undermining the idea that she was coerced.

The attorney also tried to attack Pao’s allegation that Nazre suddenly retaliated against her after ending their affair by suggesting that he had always been difficult to work with.

“Even before you began your sexual relationship with Mr. Nazre, you understood that he was not an easy person to work with?” Hermle asked. Pao replied that wasn’t sure, and then said he later became tough to deal with.

Hermle, incredulous at the response, reminded Pao that she had sex with Nazre two months after she said he started becoming difficult to work with. Pao responded with a “yes.”

Earlier in the day under friendly questioning by her own attorney, Pao tried to discredit an internal investigation that was meant to help her. She argued that the investigator – who ultimately found no evidence of discrimination and retaliation – was sloppy and biased because she believed he was interested in later working for Kleiner Perkins as its attorney.

“It felt antagonistic,” Pao said. “It felt like at times he was looking for specific answers.”

Stephen Hirschfeld, the investigator, was hired after another female partner, Trae Vassallo, complained about Ajit Nazre, the man with whom Pao had the affair. Hirschfeld concluded that Nazre did not retaliate against Pao but did harass Vassallo. He was later fired for his behavior.

“I was extremely disappointed,” Pao said of the outcome. “I had hoped that this was a path to highlight problems at Kleiner Perkins.”

Pao has also testified that a married senior partner had given her a book of erotic poetry for Valentines’ Day, and that her male colleagues discussed porn stars during a business flight, among other things. No others present, however, have so far corroborated that story.

In court, Pao revealed Tuesday that she had sought an exit package from Kleiner Perkins prior to the investigation. She said it would have had to be at least $10 million dollars, because it “would be a meaningful number that would actually hit their radar.” Kleiner Perkins, however, refused.

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