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A Gender Discrimination Trial Rocks Silicon Valley


Gender discrimination in Silicon Valley is at the heart of a court battle that has captivated the tech world this week. Ellen Pao claims that the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers had a toxic, misogynistic environment that led to her being passed over for promotions and eventually pushed out. She is seeking $16 million in damages. Kleiner Perkins says Pao simply wasn't qualified for a higher position. Davey Alba of WIRED has been in the courtroom every day of the trial so far. I asked her about what the prosecution's been trying to demonstrate through Pao's testimony.

DAVEY ALBA: They paint a picture of this old-boys culture at Kleiner Perkins. She's testified about a male partner organizing all-male ski trips and dinners at Al Gore's apartment and talks about how he, at one point, said that women kill the buzz, and that's why he's left them out of these events. There's also been some pretty raunchy talk that's been brought up during the trial - talk of the Playboy Mansion, Victoria's Secret fashion shows, how one Kleiner-backed executive had wanted to get Marissa Mayer of Yahoo! on their board, not because she was necessarily qualified, but because she was "hot," quote, unquote.

RATH: So how does the defense for Kleiner Perkins counter that? I mean, 'cause those things sound pretty bad. How are they countering that there is actually - it's not a hostile work environment?

ALBA: They've portrayed Pao as this resentful, greedy, aggressive worker at Kleiner Perkins. And they say that, you know, in fact, the composition of their workforce at Kleiner Perkins is 20 percent female, which is above the industry average of 6 percent. And so they paint Pao as a person who wasn't successful at Kleiner Perkins because she wasn't qualified - that she just wasn't cutting it.

RATH: Given the context in Silicon Valley - the enormous gender disparity that in the tech world we all know about - people are writing about this trial as being kind of a watershed. Could the outcome of this trial lead to real change in the tech industry?

ALBA: I think it definitely can. And I think that's why it's being watched so closely. There is a problem of sexism and gender discrimination for sure - just if you look at the numbers in the tech industry, and in venture capitalism, even more so. I believe there's four percent female executives in sort of the upper ranks of VC firms according to some studies.

And however the outcome of this trial ends up could lead to changes in the way that the industry views and deals with gender issues. But it's a little bit tough because it's kind of hard to take just one single trial as sort of emblematic of gender bias in tech. It's kind of a hard trap to fall into to say that the sexism at your company - your tech company - doesn't look like this, so you don't have a problem. That's not necessarily true. There are many more subtleties involved.

RATH: And Davey, where does the trial go from here?

ALBA: So right now, we have heard from Pao, which has been kind of the pivotal moment in the trial. And she's ended her testimony. Judge Kahn, the judge on this case, hopes to start deliberations by March 23. So if all goes well, we'll have maybe a week or two more, and then we'll have to listen to closing arguments.

RATH: That's Davey Alba. You can read her coverage of the Ellen Pao trial at Davey, thanks very much.

ALBA: Sure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.