Jury clears Kleiner Perkins in gender discrimination case
A jury cleared venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins of gender discrimination in lawsuit by former employee Ellen Pao following a trial that has put a harsh light on the skewed demographics in Silicon Valley.
After three days of deliberations, the jury rejected allegations that Kleiner Perkins passed Pao over for a promotion and then fired her because of her gender. It also cleared the firm of Pao’s claims it had retaliated against her.
The verdict was a major victory for Kleiner Perkins, an early investor in companies like Google and Genentech. The trial had shed an unflattering light on internal bickering within the firm and big egos along with the negative image that comes with a high-profile sexism lawsuit.
“Today’s verdict reaffirms that Ellen Pao’s claims have no legal merit,” Kleiner Perkins said in a statement. “We are grateful to the jury for its careful examination of the facts.
“There is no question gender diversity in the workplace is an important issue. KPCB remains committed to supporting women in venture capital and technology both inside our firm and within our industry.”
For Ellen Pao, the jury’s decision marks a major blow. Speaking to reporters just after the verdict, she emphasized that despite the loss, she hoped her case may help other women and make companies think twice about how women are treated.
“I have told my story and thousands of people have heard it,” Pao said. “My story is their story. If I’ve helped to level the playing field for women and minorities in venture capital, then the battle was worth it.”
During more than four weeks of testimony in San Francisco Superior Court, attorneys for Pao and her former employer, blue-chip investment firm Kleiner Perkins, presented witnesses, emails and documents that portrayed widely different narratives of Pao’s career at the firm.
The trial, which has been closely followed in Silicon Valley and by the media, offered a rare and intimate window into the gender dynamics of one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent investment firms. The case has been particularly significant for the tech industry, which has long struggled with diversity.
Pao, who filed the gender discrimination lawsuit following a seven-year career at the firm, claimed that she had been overlooked for promotions in favor of men with less experience. She also described how she was excluded from all-male dinner parties, subjected to a bawdy discussions of porn and given an inappropriate gift of erotic poetry by a senior male colleague for Valentines Day.
In turn, Kleiner aggressively defended itself in court by painting Pao as a difficult employee who lacked the qualifications necessary to be a venture capitalist. Witness after witness from the firm contradicted Pao’s accounts of misbehavior or said she twisted the facts to make insignificant events seem like serious problems.
Much of the trial’s testimony focused on Pao’s performance and whether she should have been promoted. In making her case, Pao claimed responsibility for a number of successful investments and pointed to her good relationship with companies in which Kleiner had invested. Kleiner, on the other hand, said failed to build expertise — or “thought leadership” — and constantly bickered with colleagues.
Kleiner eventually fired Pao in 2012, shortly after she had filed her lawsuit. She is now interim CEO of online forum Reddit.
After the verdict, Steve Sammut, a juror in the trial, explained to the media that he and his peers had focused their deliberations, in part, on how Pao’s performance reviews. He said they supported the firm’s defense by showing that Pao got dinged for the same weaknesses year-after-year, suggesting she never improved on them. Meanwhile, performance of male colleagues seemed to show improvements. Their critiques varied year-to-year.
“For Pao’s reviews, we went back and looked for areas to improve and they tended to stay the same, for other individuals they tended to drop off,” Sammut said.
The trial also brought into question Kleiner’s workplace policies, or lack thereof. Pao’s side argued that the venture capital firm didn’t have a real harassment policy in place until 2012, and that the partners often got away with inappropriate behavior without being punished.
The verdicts did not go smoothly. Early in the afternoon, the jury came back with what it thought was a final decision. But the judge belatedly realized that the jury had miscounted its votes for one of four counts. The judge ordered the jury to return to deliberations over a remaining retaliation claim. They emerged about an hour and a half later with a decision on the final count.
(This story was updated with additional information)