When the venture capital firm that funded Google and Amazon fired Ellen Pao in 2012, it said it let her go because she didn't have what it takes.
Pao disagreed — and sued her former employer, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, for gender bias and retaliation. The trial, now underway in San Francisco, is providing a rare look into allegations of sex discrimination and the world of venture capital.
In court, Pao's attorneys have presented performance reviews that describe Pao as too quiet, too aggressive and lacking people skills. But they've also shown the jury reviews of male colleagues who received similar feedback — but the male colleagues were promoted.
"What Ellen Pao is saying is that she got caught between being seen as too masculine to be likeable, or too feminine to be competent," says Joan Williams, a professor at University of California, Hastings College of the Law who specializes in women's issues in the workplace.
"I don't know Ellen Pao — maybe she's impossible," Williams says. "But yes, this does track a common pattern of gender bias." And it's especially common in two industries, Williams says: "Tech and finance. And that's the particular microclimate we're dealing with here."
It's a microclimate where women at her Silicon Valley venture firm were treated differently, Pao says. They were excluded from all-male events and denied seats on company boards, she's said in court filings. She also says that a male co-worker with whom she had an affair retaliated against her, and that the company failed to act.
Williams says these kinds of complaints are "old-fashioned stuff" when it comes to gender discrimination in the workplace.
Kleiner Perkins actually has more female partners than the average venture firm. No representative of the company would speak for this story, but Kleiner executive John Doerr testified in court that he thinks companies with women make better decisions.
Phil Sanderson, chair of the Western Association of Venture Capitalists, says a successful investor is good at two things: "Bringing in leads, investing in them and making money. And the second is working well in a collaborative environment with your partners," he says.
The venture firm claims that Pao couldn't do that.
"These are really top people — men and women," says Kay Lucas, an employment attorney in San Francisco who has represented women with discrimination claims like Pao's. "I have known some of them. I think this particular industry is such a highly competitive industry. ... Frankly, I think a whole bunch of them are probably difficult people.
"But I have to say, it's very often that the women are then forced to leave ... once they raise the issue," she continues. "This is my, frankly, great beef with Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In. Because when they lean in, they get retaliated against, and they often are forced out of the company. Maybe not terminated, but, 'You're not a good fit,' or whatever."
Before leaving Kleiner Perkins, Pao filed a formal gender discrimination complaint that alleged much of what she's suing the company for now. The firm hired an independent investigator to look into it, who found no bias. If the jury disagrees after the trial, expected to continue until late March, Pao stands to win up to $16 million in damages.