SAN FRANCISCO – Lawyers in a high-profile gender bias lawsuit against a Silicon Valley firm argued Tuesday that the woman behind the case was either an accomplished junior partner who was passed over for a promotion because of discrimination or a failure who sued to get a big payout as she was being shown the door.
The attorneys presented the contrasting portraits of Ellen Pao in their closing arguments before a packed courtroom in the case against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.
Company lawyer Lynne Hermle challenged Pao’s claim that she sued to help women facing gender discrimination at the firm.
“The complaints of Ellen Pao were made for only one purpose — a huge payout for team Ellen,” Hermle said.
Pao’s lawyer made his closing argument earlier, telling jurors the company had different standards for men and women that led to the denial of a promotion to Pao despite her accomplishments.
“The evidence in this case compels the conclusion that men were judged by one standard and women by another,” lawyer Alan Exelrod said. “The leaders of Kleiner Perkins are the ones responsible for this double standard.”
The suit has shined a light on the gross underrepresentation of women in the technology and venture capital sectors and led some companies to re-examine their cultures and practices — even before the jury reaches a verdict.
Closing arguments are set to continue on Wednesday.
Pao’s attorneys have portrayed her as the victim of a male-dominated culture at Kleiner Perkins where she was subjected to retaliation by a male colleague with whom she had an affair and a discussion about pornography aboard a private plane. Pao also testified about receiving a book of erotic poetry from a male partner at the company.
Her lawsuit says she was fired in 2012 after complaining about gender discrimination.
Exelrod called the firm a “boys club” and referenced trial testimony and emails from prominent venture capitalist John Doerr, a partner at Kleiner Perkins, to show that Pao had been successful at the company.
“This case should be about what Ms. Pao did for Kleiner Perkins,” Exelrod said.
Among her accomplishments was convincing the firm to invest in a company that later enjoyed great success and helping two companies merge, Exelrod said.
Exelrod said two male colleagues of Pao had been promoted, even though one was called confrontational and another was accused of having “sharp elbows,” an apparent reference to his treatment of other workers.
Exelrod mentioned the affair, discussion about pornography on the plane, and the book of poetry in his closing argument. He accused Kleiner Perkins of trying to smear Pao as a woman who had a sexual relationship at work by characterizing her relationship with the male colleague as a consensual affair gone wrong.
Pao has said the colleague hounded her into the relationship and lied about his wife having left him.
Kleiner Perkins has said Pao was a chronic complainer who twisted facts and circumstances in her lawsuit and had a history of conflicts with colleagues that contributed to the decision to let her go.
Hermle showed jurors a slide with comments from Pao’s work reviews that called her “territorial,” and “not a good teammate.”
The lawyer said the men promoted over Pao had prior venture capital experience and had founded companies, unlike Pao.
To support her claim that Pao was only interested in a payout, Hermle showed jurors an email Pao sent in December 2011 — a month before she filed her complaint — in which Pao said a friend at another venture capital firm was helping her get a lawyer to negotiate.
A judge ruled over the weekend that Pao can seek punitive damages that could add millions of dollars to a possible verdict in her favour. She is seeking $16 million in lost wages and bonuses.
Experts say Pao’s case has increased awareness about seemingly small indignities faced by women in the technology and venture capital sectors. Consultant Freada Kapor Klein said she has recently been contacted by more than a dozen venture capital and technology companies asking her how they can improve the environment for women.
During her testimony, Pao told jurors that her lawsuit was intended in part to create equal opportunities for women in the venture capital sector.
A study released last year by Babson College in Massachusetts found that women filled just 6 per cent of partner-level positions at 139 venture capital firms in 2013, down from 10 per cent in 1999.
Kleiner Perkins says more than 20 per cent of its partners are women.