Opinion: Silicon Valley Gender Bias Suit Not As it Appears


The media initially billed Ellen Pao’s sex bias lawsuit against one of Silicon Valley’s biggest and most respected venture capital firms, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, as an indictment of the tech industry’s sexist and misogynistic bro-hood culture. As far as I can see, that’s not exactly how the high-profile case is turning out.

As the courtroom drama unfolds, to me, the suit is starting to look more and more like a desperate act by a problem employee (who should have been fired sooner) and her litigious husband, Buddy Fletcher, who owes millions over a bankrupt hedge fund under investigation by the SEC as a fraudulent Ponzi scheme.

What I found unusual about this case from the beginning is that Kleiner went to trial, instead of settling out of court to keep its respected brand from being dragged through the mud. After all, why would such a private and savvy firm risk having its dirty laundry aired in public over a few million bucks?

The answer, as far as I’m concerned, is becoming more and more evident by the day.

It appears that Pao was more trouble than she was worth from the beginning. In hindsight, that’s certainly the case. And at this point, I’m sure Kleiner wishes they’d dumped her much sooner than they did. The writing was certainly on the wall.

By many accounts from testimony, performance reviews and emails introduced at trial, Pao appears to have been overly combative, aggressive, difficult to work with and self-promoting. She apparently clashed with colleagues at all levels on a consistent basis. And she seems to have a knack for blaming others for her own shortcomings.

It seems that Pao somehow managed to end up in the middle of one workplace drama after another, including an affair with a married coworker that ended badly.

Meanwhile, John Doerr, perhaps the firm’s most famous VC and general partner, was Pao’s sole champion from the day he hired her in 2005 right down to the day she filed suit seven years later. That apparently put Doerr at odds with the rest of the firm’s partnership, something I’m sure he now regrets.

Doerr actually had a golden opportunity to let Pao go when Google Ventures attempted to recruit her in 2009, but he didn’t. He fought to keep her. The question is why? Why would one of the most brilliant and accomplished VCs on Earth – a billionaire that makes critical business and hiring decisions for a living – put himself in that position?

This is only conjecture on my part, but I see only one plausible explanation. Up-and-coming women with VC potential are hard to come by. The candidate pool is very small. And Silicon Valley firms have long been under fire as good-old boy’s clubs. So female partners are coveted. And unfortunately, they’re also coddled.

Case in point, Doerr bent over backwards to help Pao minimize her shortcomings. He mentored and defended her in the hope that her performance would improve and she would reach her potential at the firm. It was a noble pursuit that backfired.

That’s also the only reasonable explanation for such a private company to risk a high-profile suit that would surely expose just how male-dominated the firm is. I believe Doerr et al felt that, not only had they not discriminated against Pao, if anything, the opposite was true.

Don’t get me wrong. As with nearly all venture capital and high-tech companies in Silicon Valley, Kleiner is lead primarily by men. And the firm has experienced its share of sexual harassment controversy. In fact Ajit Nazre, the partner Pao had an affair with, was eventually terminated for harassing another partner at the firm.

But that’s neither here nor there. Yes, Pao is a woman who sued and was let go by a male-dominated firm. But that alone doesn’t mean discrimination or retaliation took place. While people commonly and conveniently make race or gender the nefarious motive behind everything these days, correlation does not imply causation.

Nobody knows which party will prevail but, to me, it looks as if the only real mistake Doerr and Kleiner made with respect to Pao was keeping and coddling a problem employee as long as they did. And that has definitely come back to haunt the storied firm. Its brand will suffer a hit for this no matter how things turn out.

In this drama, I think Pao, Doerr and Perkins all lost long before anyone entered the courtroom.