KLEINER Perkins Caulfield & Byers, one of Silicon Valley’s most prestigious venture-capital firms, had promoted only one woman to the position of senior partner by 2011, nearly 40 years after the firm was founded. This isn’t unusual in the world of venture capital, which has long maintained a reputation for being an old boys’ club. Indeed, these firms tend to be even less diverse than the technology companies they fund. The number of female partners in VC firms has actually decreased from 10% in 1999 to 6% in 2014, according to a recent report from Babson College.
Ellen Pao, a Harvard-trained lawyer with a background in business development, joined Kleiner Perkins in 2005. By 2012 she had seen three of her male peers promoted to senior partner while she was passed over. Ms Pao filed a gender discrimination lawsuit in May 2012, citing multiple complaints: men were promoted before women; men were allowed to serve on multiple boards while women were only allowed to serve on one; men were paid more than women; and there was little support for women who experienced sexual harassment. She was then fired in October 2012, though Kleiner Perkins denies her lawsuit was a factor.
This trial, which began on February 24th in San Francisco, is full of conflicting testimony. Was Ellen Pao unjustly sidelined because of her sex or, as the defence contends, was she passed over for promotion because she wasn’t as skilled as her peers? Circumstantial evidence suggests that Kleiner Perkins cultivated a sexist culture. Female partners were excluded from important dinner events, for instance, because they might “kill the buzz”. Conversation on a business trip included discussion of favourite porn stars and the relative “hotness” of Marissa Mayer, the head of Yahoo. After ending a relationship with Ajit Nazre, another partner at the firm, Ms Pao claims that she suffered years of retaliation as Mr Nazre tried to undercut her career, keeping her out of e-mail lists and neglecting to tell her about meetings. When she reported his behaviour to management, the firm, she says, did nothing.
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