A jury decided Friday that a prestigious venture capital firm did not discriminate or retaliate against a female employee in a case that debated gender imbalance and working conditions for women in Silicon Valley.
The jury in San Francisco reached the verdict after three days of deliberations in a lawsuit filed by Ellen Pao against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.
The lawsuit claimed Pao was fired when she complained about discrimination at the firm.
Pao waved quickly to the jury as she left the courtroom after the verdict was announced.
“I have told my story and thousands of people have heard it. If I helped to level the playing field for women and minorities in venture capital, then the battle was worth it,” she said, adding that she will return to her career, family and friends.
The verdict came after a judge ordered the panel to resume deliberations when a discrepancy was found in the initial vote count.
Jurors heard conflicting portraits of Pao during closing arguments. Her attorneys said she was an accomplished junior partner who was passed over for a promotion and fired because the firm used different standards to judge men and women.
Kleiner Perkins’ attorney, Lynne Hermle, countered that Pao failed as an investor at the company and sued to get a big payout as she was being shown the door.
“It never occurred to me for a second that a careful and attentive jury like this would find either discrimination or retaliation and I’m glad to have been proven right about that,” Hermle said.
Juror Steve Sammut said jurors thought Pao was driven and ambitious.
“We felt that she was someone who probably wouldn’t take no for an answer and was pushing for her agenda,” Sammut said.
In making their case during the five-week trial, Pao’s attorneys said she was excluded from an all-male dinner at the home of Vice President Al Gore; received a book of erotic poetry from a partner; was asked to take notes like a secretary at a meeting; and subjected to talk about pornography aboard a private plane.
Juror Marshalette Ramsey, 41, said she believed Kleiner Perkins had discriminated and retaliated against Pao.
“We’re all tasked to a certain standard of conduct, and in a case like this it brings to the forefront that something innocent isn’t really innocent” in the workplace, said Ramsey, a manager for the Bay Area Rapid Transit system. “I think Ellen Pao, if nothing else, opens all of our eyes to that.”
A study introduced as evidence during the trial showed that women are grossly underrepresented as partners in the venture capital sector. Industry consultants say the case has already sparked some technology and venture companies to re-examine their cultures and practices for potential gender bias.
During her testimony, Pao told jurors that her lawsuit was intended in part to create equal opportunities for women in the venture capital sector.
Hermle, however, accused Pao of having less altrusitic motives.
“The complaints of Ellen Pao were made for only one purpose: a huge payout for team Ellen,” Hermle said in her closing argument.
Kleiner Perkins officials also 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.
The case included salacious testimony about Pao’s affair with a male colleague that was intended to bolster her allegations of gender bias. Pao said the colleague pursued her relentlessly before the affair began, and that she broke it off when she learned he had lied about his wife leaving him.
Pao told jurors the colleague later retaliated by shutting her out of key emails and meetings, and Kleiner Perkins did nothing to stop him when she complained.
Testimony showed the colleague was later found to have harassed another female employee.
Hermle, however, showed the jury emails and text messages that seemed to contradict Pao’s claims that the colleague hounded her into a relationship. In one email from 2006, after the affair began, Pao wrote that she was always looking out for the colleague — “never stopped, never will.”
Jurors were asked to determine whether Kleiner Perkins discriminated against Pao because she is a woman; failed to take reasonable steps to prevent that discrimination; and retaliated against her after she complained about gender bias by failing to promote her and then firing her.
Filed Under: Industry regulations