Ellen Pao’s Sexual Harassment Lawsuit Rattles Silicon Valley
Ellen Pao, a junior partner at well-respected Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, has filed a sexual discrimination lawsuit against the firm and her colleagues including noted venture capitalist John Doerr. According to the suit, which was filed May 10 in California Superior Court in San Francisco, Pao — “considered as thoughtful and smart by investors and entrepreneurs,” according to Forbes – says that she was sexually harassed and discriminated against by her colleagues at Kleiner, an early investor in Google and Amazon.
Pao’s Lawsuit Highlights Gender Discrimination in Silicon Valley
Pao’s lawsuit has already damaged Kleiner Perkins, as Connie Loizos wrote on PEHub, and has sent shock waves throughout Silicon Valley, bringing an “old, old problem” — the lopsided ratio of men to women in the technology world and certainly as venture capitalists and CEOs — to the fore. As the New York Times’ Bits blog notes, woman account for only 6 percent of CEOS at the top technology companies; 22 percent of software engineers at tech companies are women. Women only make up 9.1 percent of board members of Silicon Valley companies; they make up 16 percent of board members for Standard & Poor’s 500 companies.
The “shock” of the lawsuit has been all the greater because Kleiner Perkins, among other Silicon Valley venture capitalists, has been interested in hiring women. One-quarter of its partners are female, the New York Times says.
While women who work at Kleiner Perkins are described as “certainly not united behind” Pao, a number of women quoted in the New York Times say that Pao’s lawsuit has far eclipsed all other talk in Silicon Valley:
“When the news broke, we stopped what we were doing and were, like, ‘Whoa,’ ” said Claire Mazur, a founder of Of a Kind, an e-commerce start-up based in New York….
One woman said she interviewed at a top venture firm in 2000 after coming out of business school. “I was told point-blank that they once had a woman and it didn’t work out,” she said. “That was 12 years ago and they haven’t had a single woman partner since.”
Pao’s Lawsuit Against Kleiner Perkins
Specifically, Pao contends that, starting in 2006, investment partner Ajit Nazre sexually harassed her. While she “succumbed to Mr. Nazre’s insistence on sexual relations on two or three occasions,” she told him in October 2006 that she did not want to have a personal relationship with him. When she complained to senior partners and human resources executives at the firm, they retaliated by limiting her prospects for career advancement and her income, removing her from the board of a start-up and requesting that she transfer to the firm’s office in China. In the meantime, Nazre was promoted to lead Kleiner Perkins’s green technology unit and given an office across the hall from Pao’s.
Pao’s suit also alleges that another investment partner, Randy Komisar, made unwanted sexual advances to her and told her that she would never succeed at the firm “because women are quiet”; that she as well as other female employees were routinely excluded from events held by the male partners at the firm (including one organized by a male executive, Chi-Hua Chien, who allegedly said that women would “kill the buzz”); and that there was a pattern of sexual harassment at Kleiner Perkins. Another female investment partner and three administrative assistants also complained about Nasre’s behavior and he left the firm late last year, though Kleiner did not comment about whether these two were related.
Pao, an electrical engineering graduate of Princeton University who also holds a law degree and an MBA from Harvard University, is seeking economic damages that include back pay allegedly lost as well as punitive damages as allowed by law. As the New York Times says, she is being represented by employment law specialist Alan B. Exelrod, who “won a significant victory against the law firm of Baker & McKenzie in a harassment case.” Kleiner is being represented by Lynne C. Hermle, who successfully defended IBM in a lawsuit in which an employee contended that she had been fired after reporting sexual harassment.
Media coverage of Pao’s suit has noted her 2007 marriage to Alphonse Fletcher Jr., a prominent Wall Street investor and philanthropist who was awarded $1.3 million by an arbitration panel after he filed a discrimination suit against his then-employer, Kidder, Peabody & Company; Fletcher said that the firm was significantly underpaying him because he was black. In 2011, he filed a lawsuit against the Dakota, the famous Manhattan apartment building where Yoko Ono lives, after its board refused to allow him to buy a fifth apartment, which he wished to do to accommodate Pao and their young daughter. Forbes reports that Fletcher;s firm, Fletcher Asset Management, has recently been in legal and financial trouble; in April, a Cayman Islands judge ordered that it be liquidated after declaring it insolvent. As Loizos observes, attorneys say that Fletcher’s discrimination suits “won’t mean much in a court or settlement situation.”
Discrimination law attorney Michelle Heverly of San Francisco firm Littler Mendelsohn noted the same in The Almanac, while asking why Pao had allowed so much time to pass before filing suit:
[Pao]‘s obviously a very bright woman who chose to work on a man’s field. Unless she was beholden to a paycheck, it’s hard to believe she would have suffered that silently for so many years. And to bring it up now when the claims are stale only looks suspicious to me.”
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Photo by Sam Pullara