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Jurors question woman in Silicon Valley discrimination case (+video)

Jurors in a high profile sexual discrimination case are getting to directly question Ellen Pao, the former partner whose lawsuit against her former venture capital firm has raised questions about gender bias in Silicon Valley.

Jurors in the high profile Pao v. Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers LLC case on Friday are getting to ask their own questions of Ellen Pao, the former partner whose sexual discrimination case against the venture capital firm has shone a spotlight on gender bias in Silicon Valley culture.

Ms. Pao has answered questions on the stand over the past four days, delving into the details of her experience as an employee with the venture capital firm best known for backing tech giants such as Amazon.com and Google Inc.

Pao says that she filed the lawsuit to help other women advance at the firm, where she says she was denied a promotion due to her gender.The defense, however, has attempted to portray the lawsuit as financially motivated and claims that Pao created her own problems. Now it is up to the jury to decide whether Silicon Valley has a gender issue or Pao has an attitude problem.

Recommended: Why so few women in tech? Seven challenges and potential solutions.

But whether Pao can prove gender discrimination in court or not, the fact that venture capitalism is male-dominated is hardly in dispute. Only 4 percent of senior venture capitalists are women, according to a 2014 Fortune report.

The results of the case will reverberate throughout Silicon Valley, as experts say it has the potential to make employers in the industry rethink the way women are treated. If the company is found guilty of discrimination, it could be seen as a vindication of women’s complaints about the high-tech world. On the other hand, if the suit fails it could encourage critics who say Silicon Valley’s gender problem is being overdramatized. 

The working culture at Kleiner Perkins, where staff members have said the mostly male employees advance their careers by hyping themselves up and talking over others, is certainly under review. Pao is suing the company for $16 million because she said the eight figure sum would "actually hit their [Kleiner Perkins'] radar."

“I wanted my payment to be enough so [Kleiner Perkins] saw it would be painful not to fix problems,” she said.

Pao started working for Kleiner Perkins in 2005 as the chief of staff to senior partner and investor John Doerr. The job required an engineering degree from a prestigious university, a background in enterprise software, and degrees in law and business, all of which Ms. Pao possessed.

But Fortune reported that while Pao’s position with Doerr was enviable, occasionally the tasks were not.

“As Doerr’s top aide she enjoyed an enviable position: Her office was next to his, and she sat in on his meetings. Yet her tasks could be menial. Doerr travels with a printer, the better to quickly produce a term sheet for entrepreneurs. Pao was known to carry it for him; Doerr says that didn’t happen,” wrote Adam Lashinsky and Katie Benner for Fortune in 2012.

Meanwhile, Pao claims she faced discrimination after ending an affair with a married colleague, Ajit Nazre, and that the work culture at KPCB was rife with gender bias.

Pao claims that she approached higher-ups in the company for help resolving the conflict that developed between her and Mr. Nazre following their affair, but that she was ignored, told that she should marry him, and was eventually asked to change offices or transfer to China. Meanwhile, Nazre was promoted to senior partner in the division where Pao worked, while she was denied a promotion. Pao said that she was left without a performance review in retaliation for speaking up. 

Nazre was eventually fired in 2012 after another female partner at the firm filed a sexual harassment complaint against him. 

However, Pao has also said that a Kleiner partner did not invite her or any other women to an important company dinner because “women kill the buzz,” and that another partner told her “the personalities of women” do not lead to success at Kleiner “because women are quiet.”

The company also paid for a speech coach for Pao in order to help her “own the room,” something the firm viewed as a priority, The New York Times reported.

Stephen Hirschfeld, a private investigator Kleiner Perkins hired to look into allegations that Nazre has pursued Pao and another female employee at the firm, testified that Mr. Doerr had told him that Pao “had a female chip on her shoulder.”

He also recalled Pao telling him about a plane trip during which the CEO of a Kleiner-funded company discussed the Playboy mansion, porn stars, and Victoria’s Secret, and asked if he could get Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer on the board of his company because she’s “really hot.”

The defense, however, has denied the claims that there was gender discrimination at the firm and instead painted a picture of Pao as a combative and resentful employee who refused to accept criticism or instruction.

Kleiner’s defense lawyer, Lynne Hermle, introduced a chart that Pao had sent in an e-mail to herself that included categories such as “Resentment,” “What Part of My Life it Affected,” “My Feelings,” and “My Part.” The chart named colleagues Pao had worked with at the firm, including Doerr and Nazre.

Pao claims that she used the chart to work through her feelings, Wired reported.

But while Ms. Hermle’s cross examination attempted to portray Pao as cold, territorial, untrustworthy, entitled, and aggressive, spectators said that Pao did well on the stand. 

“She was better than I expected — by a lot,” Kathleen Lucas, an employment lawyer with Lucas Law Firm, told Forbes.

“Because so much of the debate about Pao’s performance at the firm has to do with her personality and her relations with her coworkers, her ability to win over the jury could have a strong influence on the outcome of her case,” wrote Ellen Huet for Forbes.

The jury’s questions may now provide an inside look at their impressions. At least 37 states, including California, permit jurors to pose their own questions in civil cases once the lawyers are done, according to the American Judicature Society, Reuters reported.

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