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The Silicon Valley Sex Suit

Image: Reuters

Silicon Valley lawsuits normally involve IP or antitrust issues, not sex discrimination, sexual harassment and other more seedy suits. However the current suit-de-jour in the Valley is the lawsuit by form Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers employee Ellen Pao.

Kleiner Perkins’ are the most famous of all Silicon Valley’s venture capitalists and to have a lawsuit claiming $16 million and relating to allegations of pressured affairs and exclusion from meetings and other alleged discrimination and harassment is not exactly the stuff of dreams for the storied firm.

The legal action has instead brought issues of gender discrimination and sexism to the fore.

Silicon Valley has long prided itself upon its informality and relationships: preferring talent and drive over pure old school, ivy league connections. For women, the challenges have been both rewarded and threatening at the same time. A group of women in the tech business recently published a manifesto for women working in the tech business.

John Doerr, a successful investor, was Ms. Pao’s boss. How the man with the Midas touch let his very proud, very image-conscious shop become embroiled in scandal.

The jury heard from Trae Vassallo, another former female venture partner at Kleiner Perkins who provided evidence of alleged unwelcome advances from Ajit Nazre, a colleague in the firm and with whom Ms Pao had a consensual relationship.

In the NY Times magazine, Emily Bazelon wrote about the broader issues facing not just Kleiner Perkins, but the Silicon Valley culture and the sea in which the operatives there swim.

Pao, who is now the interim chief executive of Reddit, has also painted a broader picture of Kleiner Perkins as a hostile bastion of male entitlement, where female partners were excluded from dinners with entrepreneurs because they would “kill the buzz.”

Kleiner Perkins has responded that Pao received bad performance reviews and lacked the attributes for succeeding in venture capital — “the ability to lead others, build consensus and be a team player.” The firm also says it has long been a supporter of women in house and in the industry.

The case has riveted the tech world, not just because of the personal particulars but also because of the way in which it captures the zeitgeist in one of the most powerful and gender-imbalanced corners of a powerful and gender-imbalanced industry.

It’s no revelation at this point that the tech sector often isn’t an easy place to be a woman. For an article I recently wrote involving another high-profile lawsuit in Palo Alto, Calif. (over sexual harassment and assault), I talked to a dozen and a half women in the valley who are in their 20s and 30s, as well as a handful of men. As far as sex and gender were concerned, the work atmosphere they described sounded retrograde to a degree reminiscent of other glamorous industries in the growth spurt of adolescence: Hollywood in the 1950s, Wall Street in the 1980s.

“You can’t take for granted you’ll be taken seriously,” one female start-up adviser who had worked at a major tech company told me.

“That is different for men, 100 percent.” Many of the women spoke with a mix of frustration and dismay about the guys in computer-science class who were reluctant to code with them or the executives who weren’t sure they were right for a job or a promotion.

What’s true of Silicon Valley is especially true at venture-capital firms. Studies suggest that women make up just 19 percent of angel investors and 6 percent of partners at venture capital firms (down from 10 percent in 1999). This has predictable consequences.

The women I talked to had plenty of stories of male investors who didn’t want to fund them for reasons that were either comically antiquated or suspiciously hazy. (Rarely, one suspects, are the men as blunt as the investor who told Kathryn Tucker of RedRover, an app for kids’ events, that “I don’t like the way women think.” Even when the discrimination wasn’t so overt, women told me they encountered more subtle barriers. The male venture capitalists they worked with often seemed uncomfortable with women and tended to treat them less as peers than as potential conquests.

Elissa Shevinksy, a co-founder of Glimpse Labs, emphasized that “the best V.C.s and angels are very professional.” Then she told me a story about a well-liked investor who brought up pornography, sex and reincarnation as she tried to pitch her company to him. “This was just part of the sea we swim in,” she said.

Read More at NY Times

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