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


Huber F.
Huber F4 years ago

a cruel world.

Annmari Lundin
Annmari Lundin5 years ago

How nice of a female lawyer to make allegations about a female she doesn't know and suggest there's something fishy about her waiting so long to bring a suit. It may have been that she'd tried to settle things within the firm and tried to better things on her own, but eventually found nothing would change. It may have been the case. Neither I or Michelle Heverly know the facts and neither of us can make a judgment in the case.

Gina H.
Gina H5 years ago

Men like Ajit Nazre need an old fashion attitude adjustment called castration both financially and physically. I guess Pao can be greatful she doesn't work in India where Nazre would have had her stoned, burned or beheaded. I'm betting if Nazre hadn't pushed for the sex then she wouldn't have had sex with him. That simple. Men need to grow up and stop treating women and girls like their existence is for male pleasure and servitude only. Even if the affair started out mutual, Nazre had no right to punish her for ending it.

Sarah Mumford
S M5 years ago

Good luck and best wishes Pao.

Christine Stewart

It is infuriating in the 21st century that any of this nonsense is going on.

June L.
June Lacy5 years ago


Julia M.
Tanya M5 years ago

This is SO recognizable (being a female in a male dominated field). First, there are isolated behaviors such as somebody reprimands a colleague for not getting sex, and somebody excludes females from an event. In a normal world, behaviors like that would've been taken care of by the business. But in the boys club everybody takes sides with their buddies, against the victims. Then the problem becomes company wide discrimination.

I wish her to win.

Donna B.
Donna B5 years ago

I hope she wins.

Helen K.

"...unless she was beholden to a paycheck..."? WHY does that jerk think most people get up and go to a job at a scheduled time?! Yes, she needed her paycheck, but she refused to be pimped out to get it. For that, she wasn't fired, but was transferred and her prospects at the company ruined. When stuff like that happens, a person is in a state of emotional shock and can't properly process everything. Only with time does the pattern of the employer's complicity in the harassments become clear.

I hope she wins.

Nessie Benjamin
Nessie B5 years ago

Sexual harassment is sexual harassment, and when it happened doesn't mitigate the fact that it happened folks! How anyone can question "timing or motive" has never been a victim of sexual harassment at work.

I had the experience of being pawed by my boss early in my work career, and when I complained to HR, I was told 'he wouldn't do something like that'! When I confronted my boss directly, he said 'why do you think you were hired'!!! And was fired on the spot!
That was in the 60's - and it's still going on . . .