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Ellen Pao faces tough questions from jurors in Kleiner Perkins sexism case

Ellen Pao walks to San Francisco Superior Court in San FranciscoEllen Pao walks to San Francisco Superior Court in San Francisco
Ellen Pao walks to San Francisco Superior Court Photograph by Robert Galbraith — Reuters

For the past three weeks, Ellen Pao’s accusations about sexism at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins have been playing out in court, with the plaintiff’s side making its case.

But it’s the defense — and attorney Lynne Hermle — that seems to have made the bigger impression on the jurors based on the questions they asked Pao today in San Francisco Superior Court.

One of the first questions focused on what legendary Kleiner Perkins venture capitalist John Doerr told Pao about her prospects of becoming a senior partner when he interviewed her for her a junior job. It’s an important issue because Kleiner Perkins has argued that Pao turned out to be unqualified to be promoted while Pao insists she was passed over because of her gender.

In responding, Pao acknowledged that “at no point did he say I could continue as an investor forever, or that I could be a bad investor and stay in that role.”

Pao has alleged that Kleiner Perkins, one of Silicon Valley’s blue chip investment firms, was a boys club culture rife with discrimination against women. She has described an environment that condoned chit-chat about porn and adult television shows during business trips, and then retaliated against her for complaining. She’s suing for $16 million. Kleiner Perkins, which made early investments in tech giants like Google and Genentech, has denied all of her accusations and cast her as a problem employee who was not up to the job.

In an unusual move, Judge Harold Kahn has allowed jurors to submit written questions throughout the trial. He read them out loud in court Friday, with Pao in the witness stand.

The questions focused mostly on inconsistencies in Pao’s story.

Given Pao’s claims that she wanted to become an investor, one juror wanted to know about her current position as interim CEO at Reddit, an online forum. Is that an operating role rather than one with investment responsibilities. Yes, Pao responded. She later explained that she took the job because no one would hire her as an investor.

Another question focused on Pao’s low opinion of the investigator Kleiner Perkins hired to look into her sexism allegations. She has criticized his inquiry, which found her complaints groundless, as biased and haphazard. What if, the juror asked, he had instead sided with Pao? Would she then have thought differently about his investigation?

No, Pao said. “I wasn’t happy with the process, and even if he had come out in my favor, I wouldn’t recommend him again,” she added.

The jury also had several questions about Pao’s relationship with fellow partner Ajit Nazre, with whom she had a brief affair, and its aftermath. Was it appropriate to be involved with a married coworker? Why was she so adamant about him staying at the firm after she complained to senior partners that he had pressured her into sex and then retaliated against her after she broke off their relationship?

Pao reiterated he had told her he was separated from his wife at the time, and only later learned it was a lie. And she was in a difficult position because getting him fired would have exacerbated his already serious marital and family problems. Furthermore, other partners had pressured her to lobby management to let him keep his job. .

The jury also seemed confused by another email Pao sent to Doerr, who mentored her during much of her tenure at the firm. In it, she used the word “asshole” to ask that partners be more respectful. Was it rude for her to use such a term? Was that typical language at the firm?

“No, I was not calling him an asshole,” said Pao, who had actually wrote “Don’t be an asshole” as a recommendation to colleagues. “It was a phrase that was used within the company.”

The jury’s questions also let Pao show a more vulnerable side, which make her more sympathetic than the image of a sour territorial employee that Kleiner Perkins is pushing in court. For example, she revealed that she had suffered a miscarriage while at the firm. Because she was under medical care following the incident, Pao couldn’t properly set up and attend key meetings. But management held her organizational problems with those meetings against her in a performance review, she complained.