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  • Silicon Valley Venture Capital Firm Hit by Harassment Claim

    Ellen Pao, an investment partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers is suing the venture capital giant for sexual harassment, gender discrimination and retaliation, and the suit has Silicon Valley in a tizzy.

    In what has long been considered a male dominated culture, Pao’s suit is shining the light on the glass ceiling for women working in Silicon Valley. Used to their impeccable reputation, however, Kleiner Perkins is not taking the suit lying down and insists that Pao’s allegations are false. In other words, this is a fight and both sides are swinging.

    Pao holds an undergraduate degree from Princeton, and a law degree and MBA from Harvard. She joined the firm in 2005 but now claims that Kleiner blocked her and other women from advancement within the firm. Kleiner, himself, is quick to claim that one quarter of their senior partners are female. And the firm is insisting that Pao was passed over for poor performance and lack of merit.

    While the suit is garnering a tremendous amount of attention from the media, both sides are avoiding public comment. But Kleiner Perkins did respond to one media outlet by promoting their history of hiring women, and their role as a “diversity pioneer.” Regardless, the firm wants the suit out of the public eye and has petitioned to kick the proceedings into private arbitration.

    Pao’s complaint alleges that she was the victim of sexual harassment by a former partner of the firm, Ajit Nazre. She claims that he began retaliating against her when she broke up with him. He excluded her from meetings and work related email groups necessary to perform her job in addition to other forms of retaliation. When she complained about the harassment up the chain to the highest level of management, not only did they ignore her complaints, but Pao claims actually urged her to: 1) drop the issue or 2) marry Nazre. Then the firm promoted Nazre to a position where he would have more direct control over Pao. Pao’s complaint alleges further retaliation from managing partners and those responsible for her review and promotion opportunities.

    Pao also claims that she was excluded from business related outings, including trips to Vail and NYC, and business dinners that she was told were only for men, because women “kill the buzz.”

    Here’s the rub, the firm claims that Pao never made any complaints about Nazre until she hired an attorney late in 2011.

    Pao’s complaint alleges three causes of action: gender discrimination, retaliation, and failure to prevent discrimination, all violations of California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).

    Under FEHA, it unlawful to discriminate against someone on the basis of their sex. Furthermore, it is unlawful to retaliate against an employee for participating in protected activity. In Pao’s case, she alleges that the retaliatory treatment was in response to her complaints of harassment and gender discrimination, which are protected activities.

    Furthermore, an employer can be held liable for an independent violation of FEHA when they do not have an anti-harassment policy in place, do not conduct training in discrimination prevention and/or do not make an appropriate investigation into allegations of harassment.

    If you or someone you know believes you are being treated differently on the basis of your sex, or have reported harassment without appropriate response from your employer, a sexual harassment lawyer in California can help you to understand your rights.