Ellen Pao trial ends on plea for gender equality in the tech industry

After hearing compelling closing arguments, the jury now gets to decide the winner in Silicon Valley's highest-profile sex discrimination case.

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
4 min read

Ellen Pao, shown here leaving the courthouse with her attorney Therese Lawless, will now have to wait for the jury's verdict. Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

It's down to the jury.

Six men and six women in San Francisco are now beginning their deliberations in Ellen Pao's lawsuit against former employer Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. What they decide could affect how the entire technology industry hires and promotes women.

A former junior partner at Kleiner Perkins, one of Silicon Valley's most famous venture capital firms, Pao claims she was punished and eventually fired in 2012 for questioning the firm's treatment of women. Her lawyers argue the firm -- which backed notable tech companies from Amazon to Google to Zynga -- judged male and female employees differently in an illegal double-standard. Pao is suing for $16 million in lost wages and potential earnings, and possibly tens of millions more in punitive damages.

The jurors Wednesday heard closing arguments from two women lawyers speaking on opposing sides. Kleiner Perkins' lawyer Lynne Hermle argued that Pao weaved "a tale of retaliatory woe," and planned an elaborate exit strategy in late 2011 after learning that summer she would not be promoted to senior partner.

"She was not in the universe of qualifications," Hermle told the jurors about Pao, who has an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from Princeton University, and an MBA and law degree from Harvard University. "She did not have the deep expertise. She did not have the investing experience."

Pao's lawyer, Therese Lawless countered that she was at least as qualified -- if not more -- as her male colleagues, who were promoted. The real problem, said Lawless: an uneven playing field.

"When Ellen Pao wanted a seat at the table, others thought she was being presumptuous," Lawless said. "But it was normal for her to do that. How do you think her male colleagues got on the many boards they sat on?"

Lawless accused the firm of acting entitled and fostering a culture where men are treated differently than women and promoted over them, "where men are allowed to behave in a certain way and are rewarded, and when women are displaying the same kind of characteristics are penalized," Lawless said. "It's not fair."

Pao's lawsuit could have far-reaching ramifications throughout the tech industry. Critics say gender bias pervades the tech industry, creating a culture that's hostile to women and minorities. Last year, most of the biggest technology companies, including Apple, Twitter, Microsoft and Facebook, reported that the majority of their workforce is male and white. In just the last week, two former female Facebook and Twitter employees sued their respective companies for alleged gender discrimination.

And earlier this month, an audience member attending a South by Southwest panel in Austin, Texas, called out Google Chairman Eric Schmidt for interrupting one of the other members of the panel, US CTO and former Google vice president Megan Smith.

"Given that unconscious bias research tells us that women are interrupted a lot more than men, I'm wondering if you are aware that you have interrupted Megan many more times," Judith Williams, who heads up Google's unconscious bias program, asked, earning applause from the audience.

The lawsuit between Pao and Kleiner Perkins has become the talk of the tech industry, in part because it pulls aside the curtain on one of Silicon Valley's most-prestigious -- and most-secretive -- VC firms. The view behind the curtain at Kleiner, which was founded in 1972, includes allegations of sexual affairs, harassment and exclusion.

As examples, Pao's team talked about her being left off the invite list for important dinners, including one at the home of former Vice President Al Gore. Pao also described a men-only ski trip to Colorado and she said she felt uncomfortable on a plane ride with her male co-workers who openly talked about porn stars and the Playboy mansion.

Kleiner said 20 percent of its senior partners are women -- three times more than the industry average -- proof that it doesn't discriminate. The firm contends Pao was a hostile employee who didn't work well with others.

Hermle urged jurors to ignore Pao's accusations, saying gender had nothing to do with Pao's dismissal. "She was given every opportunity to succeed," Hermle said. "Ellen Pao failed for one reason and one reason only -- her view of her skills and performance was far different from what they were."

Lawless refuted those claims, saying Kleiner should have instituted workplace training for its partners and employees. "If you're really committed, really committed to have a workplace free of discrimination, you put your money where your mouth is," she said. "You don't just give lip service."

The jury must decide if Pao's gender and poor job reviews were the main reason Kleiner Perkins chose not to promote her to senior partner. They'll also consider whether Kleiner Perkins failed to take reasonable steps to prevent gender discrimination and if the firm's actions harmed Pao, who now serves as interim CEO of online social-networking and news site Reddit.

Lawless said Pao brought the suit to force a change in behavior at Kleiner Perkins -- and other companies. "Every individual in this country is allowed to go to work and have equity in the workplace. Every individual is allowed to have the same standards applied to them. That's what she wanted. That's why we're here."