Everything you need to know about the Ellen Pao gender discrimination trial

The potentially landmark Silicon Valley trial nears its end, with closing arguments expected Tuesday.

Terry Collins Staff Reporter, CNET News
Terry writes about social networking giants and legal issues in Silicon Valley for CNET News. He joined CNET News from the Associated Press, where he spent the six years covering major breaking news in the San Francisco Bay Area. Before the AP, Terry worked at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and the Kansas City Star. Terry's a native of Chicago.
Terry Collins
6 min read

Did they or didn't they?

That's the question jurors are set to decide as the high-profile gender discrimination trial between Ellen Pao and her former employer, influential Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, comes to a close.

After a month of riveting testimony, a jury in San Francisco, made up of six women and six men, will hear closing arguments this week. Pao, formerly a junior partner at Kleiner Perkins, accused the firm -- which has backed notable tech companies from Amazon to Google to Zynga -- of gender discrimination and retaliation. She's suing for $16 million based in part on lost wages and what she could have earned if she had been promoted to a senior partner.

For its part, Kleiner Perkins claims Pao wasn't a team player. Instead, the firm argues she was a hostile employee. Kleiner also claims it doesn't struggle with gender discrimination, saying about 20 percent of its senior partners are women, three times more than the industry average.

Still, the lawsuit has set the tech industry on its heels and shined a spotlight on sexism and gender inequity in the heart of tech. Last week, Facebook and Twitter were also . The tech industry, critics say, is an insular "boy's club" where not enough women or minorities are hired or promoted.

If Pao loses, the question of how women and minorities are treated in Silicon Valley likely won't go away. If she wins, it could force the powerful moneymen behind tech to rethink the way they hire and promote. Just 7.3 percent of top investing partners are women at US venture firms, according to Pitchbook Data, which examined the gender gap among senior-level partners across more than 2,100 VC firms of all sizes.

"Any verdict in [Pao's] favor, and the fact that this case proceeded to trial with the evidence presented, should cause employers to step back and take stock and make sure they avoid relying on terms that could have harmful impacts on women in the workplace," said Jason Knott, a lawyer at Washington, D.C.-based Zuckerman Speader who has written about the trial.

Here's an overview as the potentially landmark trial enters the home stretch:

The plaintiff

Pao, 45, was fired five months after she filed suit in May 2012. She claims that during her seven years at Kleiner Perkins she wasn't promoted for lucrative jobs over her male co-workers, was asked to sit in the back of the room at meetings, and was later punished when she complained about her treatment. Pao testified that the firm treated women unfairly and "was not going to change unless I pushed it." Pao's lawyers said she excelled academically, earning a bachelor's degree from Princeton University, then both a law degree and a master's in business administration from Harvard University. Before joining Kleiner Perkins in 2005, she worked in business development for Silicon Valley companies including Microsoft. In November 2014, she of the website Reddit.

The firm

Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers is considered the granddaddy of Silicon Valley's venture capital firms. It was founded in 1972 and famously invested in Web pioneers like Netscape Communications, the early browser maker. It also financed powerhouses like Google, Twitter and Uber. Pao said she suggested the company invest in Twitter in 2007, but the firm declined. When it did invest three years later, a male partner led the process, she said.

No women allowed?

Pao presented several examples of what she described as discriminatory behavior at Kleiner. One example: she and other female workers were not invited to dinners at the home of former Vice President Al Gore, who lived in the same building as Pao. Her attorneys claimed one former Kleiner Perkins partner didn't invite women to the Gore dinner because "women kill the buzz."

Pao also described all-male business ski trips the firm took in Colorado. She also testified that she felt uncomfortable on a plane ride with her male co-workers who openly talked about porn stars and the Playboy mansion.

Mary Meeker, a well-respected Internet analyst and now senior partner at Kleiner Perkins, testified that the firm is "the best place to be a woman in the business," mentioning several women who work at the firm. Meeker said she was invited, but did not attend Kleiner's all-male ski trip. Meeker said she did attend a company dinner at Gore's house.

The unmet expectations?

Kleiner Perkins has said Pao's claims lack merit and they repeatedly referred to her poor job performance reviews during the trial. Senior partner John Doerr, who mentored Pao (she was one of his chiefs of staff), testified that he was a strong advocate of Pao. Yet, he also felt she had a selfish attitude.

"I couldn't fight for her to stay," Doerr said.

Kleiner Perkins partner Matt Murphy, who also described himself as a mentor, testified that Pao was cited more than any other partner for not meeting expectations. Murphy thought Pao felt entitled, was disrespectful and suggested she try contributing more "thought leadership" to become a "go to" person at the firm. He said Pao embarrassed him by falling asleep during a board meeting. At the end of a 60-day evaluation period in September 2012, Murphy recommended Pao's termination. She was fired the following month.

The affair

Aside from the supposed issues with her work, Pao was also cited for having an affair with someone at the firm. Pao said a married co-worker pressured her into it, but Kleiner Perkins' lawyers say she was a willing participant. Pao said she broke it off after learning the man had never left his wife.

She said the former partner, Ajit Nazre, then cut her out of emails, calls and meetings. Nazre was later fired for allegedly making advances toward another woman at the firm. Nazre wasn't called as a witness during the trial.

The Valentine's gift

An affair that Pao had with a co-worker wasn't the only sexual issue brought forth during the trial. Pao's attorneys said Kleiner Perkins partner Randy Komisar made an unwanted advance toward Pao and gave her a gift, the "Book of Longing" by Leonard Cohen -- which includes sexually themed poems and nude drawings -- on Valentine's Day 2007. Komisar testified he and his wife decided to buy the book after hearing Cohen talk about writing it at a Buddhist monastery. Komisar said he and Pao talked often about his Buddhist faith and she had recently given him two Buddhism-themed gifts.

Komisar later testified he felt betrayed when Pao asked some senior partners to get him removed from a company board seat. "I thought that was unforgivable," he said.

The recruiter's take

Kleiner's head of recruitment, Juliet de Baubigny, testified that she recruited Pao to join the firm but later worried that Pao had issues that left "a cloud" over her. De Baubigny said Pao would frequently complain about co-workers.

"I began to dread when she came to my office with a notebook and wanted to talk about other things," she said. De Baubigny said the firm held many women-only events that Pao was invited to attend.

The lawyers

The trial has seen a spirited battle between two female attorneys. Pao's lead attorney, Therese Lawless, is a gender harassment specialist. She and her co-counsel, Alan Exelrod, have portrayed Kleiner Perkins as a hostile work environment for women. Meanwhile, Kleiner Perkins' attorney, Lynne Hermle, has tried to poke holes in Pao's accusations, asking questions about her affair with a married co-worker. Kleiner Perkins' lawyers have also questioned her motives, suggesting she's only suing for the money.

The judge and jury

One of the odder parts of the trial has been how it was conducted. Superior Court Judge Harold Kahn allowed witnesses to take questions from the jury, a legal tactic rarely used. After Pao's fourth day of testifying, the jury submitted more than 100 questions to Pao during a two-hour stretch.

Jurors asked: "When did you come to the conclusion that gender discrimination was a widespread problem and these weren't isolated incidents?" And, "Did you think some senior partners are insensitive?" Pao said the firm wasn't a good environment for women and it was hard to be taken seriously.

Possible punitive damages

Pao was seeking $16 million, but it wasn't until March 21 that the judge allowed her to seek punitive damages. In his ruling, Judge Kahn wrote that there is sufficient evidence that a juror could conclude Kleiner Perkins engaged in intentional gender discrimination against Pao by failing to promote her and by terminating her employment.