Over the past month, a gender discrimination trial has gripped Silicon Valley. The suit pits one of Silicon Valley's most established venture capital firms, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, against a former employee, Ellen Pao, who alleges she was discriminated against at the firm.
Throughout the case, lawyers for both sides have painted dramatically different pictures of the lives of women who work for the firm. But with closing arguments beginning today, a jury will soon decide which version of events they find more credible.
Here's what you need to know:
Who is Ellen Pao?
Currently, she's the interim chief executive of social news site reddit. But starting in 2005, she was the chief of staff toJohn Doerr at Kleiner Perkins. She was later promoted to junior partner. But Pao was fired from the firm in October of 2012, a few months after filing a gender discrimination suit against the company — an act she considered retaliatory.
Pao has an electrical engineering degree from Princeton and went to Harvard for both law and business school. She's also married to Buddy Fletcher, a former hedge fund operator whose fall from grace has been cataloged by Vanity Fair and Fortune.
The bulk of the testimony at the trial has come down to whether Pao was discriminated against because of her gender or, as the defense has argued, she just wasn't a very good at her job and had interpersonal conflicts with her colleagues.
And what exactly is Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers?
It's a venture capital firm — one of the most important ones in Silicon Valley. Founded in 1972, the company has had a hand in funding hundreds of companies, including big names like Amazon, Twitter, AOL, Google and Uber. (Disclosure: Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Kleiner Perkins primarily funds digital, life sciences and green tech companies. Former vice president Al Gore is a partner at the firm and has worked on their green investing efforts. Being left out of an all-male dinner party at Gore's apartment was one of Pao's original complaints.
What about the rest of the complaints?
Essentially, Pao claims that there was a culture of discrimination at the company — one that made it hard for women to compete for opportunities, raises and promotions. For example, her suit says that male junior partners were allowed to hold seats on the boards of multiple companies Kleiner Perkins invested in, while female junior partners were limited to one. Pao also testified that she was overlooked for a board seat on a patent company she fought for the firm to invest in because she was pregnant, according to re/code.
Beyond the Al Gore dinner, Pao also says women were excluded from a ski trips to Colorado and she felt uncomfortable on a plane ride during which co-workers discussed porn stars and the Playboy mansion. (Some others have disputed the specifics of the conversation topics on that ride in their testimony, according to Wired.)
But she also alleges that sexual harassment was a problem at the firm. Pao says she was pressured into an affair with a married co-worker, Ajit Nazre — who then retaliated after she ended the relationship in 2006. Nazre was later fired after another former general partner at the firm, Trae Vassallo, allegedly complained about unwanted advances. Kleiner Perkins hired an investigator after Vassallo's complaints, Stephen Hirschfeld, who ultimately found that there were no signs of gender-based discrimination in the company. But according to testimony at the trial he didn't follow up on some things — including a matrix Vassallo allegedly made showing that female partner's investments performed better than those of their male counterparts. And some of Hirschfeld's testimony during the trial also seems to have been at odds with his own notes from his investigation, re/code reported.
What does the company have to say about this?
The company's argument has been primarily that Pao didn't succeed because she wasn't a good fit for the job — either too passive, or too aggressive, or not a team player — not because of gender discrimination. Some female employees at Kleiner Perkins have testified in defense of the company, including partner Juliet de Baubigny, who said she'd never felt discriminated against at the firm.
Another partner, Beth Seidenberg testified that she and other women at the company tried to organize semi-regular all-female dinners, according to Wired. Kleiner Perkins has also argued that it has been better than the venture capital field at large when it comes recognizing the talents of its female employees — highlighting people like Mary Meeker, who has led the firm's digital-growth since 2011.
In her testimony, re/code reports, Meeker called Kleiner Perkins "the best place to be a woman in the business."
However, there are some signs that the company's infrastructure for dealing with gender discrimination complaints was less than ideal. Wired reports that Susan Biglieri, the firm's chief financial officer, testified that the company did not have an official human resources department at the time of Pao's complaints — and that the company did not distribute its anti-discrimination policy to new employees until after Pao and Vassallo had filed complaints.
What are the possible outcomes?
Pao is asking for $16 million in lost wages for being denied a promotion and fired from the company — but Superior Court Judge Harold Kahn has said the jury could also award her punitive damages. So if the jury rules finds Kleiner Perkins acted with malice, Pao could receive a much more significant payout. How much more? Potentially more than $100 million, according to the San Jose Mercury News.
If the jury rules in favor of Kleiner Perkins, Pao will get nothing. To issue a verdict, nine jurors out of 12 must agree on whether or not there was discrimination. Closing arguments began today, and a decision could be returned as early as this evening.
Why is this such a big deal?
The suit has aired a lot of the Silicon Valley's dirty laundry while becoming a flash point for larger conversations about gender and tech.
Women are significantly under-represented in the industry — as diversity report after company diversity report shows — often making up about 30 percent of employees at big tech companies and an even smaller proportion of those in leadership and technical roles. Google is just now getting it's first female c-suite executive.
And a lot of the tech industry is funded by venture capital firms like Kleiner Perkins — companies that research suggests may have an even worse track record when it comes to gender diversity and leadership than tech companies themselves.
But the Pao trial may only be the beginning. In the wake of the suit, lawsuits have been filed alleging gender discrimination at Facebook and Twitter. The plaintiff in the Facebook suit is represented by the same law firm as Pao. Win or lose, Pao has brought the way that Silicon Valley treats women under a magnifying glass.