Kleiner Perkins Responds to Sex Discrimination Suit

Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the Silicon Valley venture capital firm, has just formally responded to the sex discrimination suit filed by one of its female partners, as reported by the New York Times. In the response, the firm denied all the female partner’s allegations of sex discrimination, harassment and retaliation, claiming she had “twisted facts” in her favor and misinterpreted many of the actions by colleagues that she claims were harassment. The response filed in San Francisco Superior Court provides evidence that the firm will aggressively fight the charges by Ellen Pao who is still working at the firm. It seems, however, from the response that the firm may not succeed in its heavy-handed attempt to paint Pao as overly sensitive to workplace dynamics and not a real victim of sexual discrimination, harassment and retaliation.
The response by Kleiner Perkins denies some of Pao’s claims while reinterpreting others, making this case mostly a matter of interpretation. The venture capital firm, which has one of the strongest track records in Silicon Valley in hiring female partners and directors, immediately highlighted this fact in its response to Pao. Kleiner Perkins claims that Pao never complained to the firm about the alleged discrimination and harassment she faced during the five years in question, and only did so in 2011 when she had already retained counsel. Once she did complain in 2011, however, the firm states that they immediately investigated the claim, including interviewing all female partners at the firm before finding her claim to be meritless.
The firm also denied Pao’s claims that when she complained about the sexual harassment she faced from one of her senior colleagues, one partner encouraged her to marry her harasser. The firm claims instead that partners she shared her complaints with gave her sound advice and she was in fact grateful to them. The fact that this seems to immediately contradict the firm’s claims that she never formally complained about the harassment and discrimination she faced is, again, a matter of interpretation.
Kleiner Perkins in its response also alleges that Pao completely twisted the facts of an incident she claims was clear sexual harassment and misunderstood the intentions of her colleagues. Pao had claimed that a partner had given her a sexually explicit book and invited her to dinner alone despite her obvious discomfort. Kleiner Perkins responded to her claim by stating that the book in question was a “profound” Buddhist collection of poems and that the partner gave her the gift following multiple discussions between them about the religion.
In response to Pao’s claims of retaliation, the firm set out that the performance reviews that she alleges were retaliatory were not, and in fact fair evaluations of her work. The firm provided examples of possibly retaliatory comments and attempted to demonstrate how they were in fact accurate representations of her performance of the job, again making this issue hinge on a matter of interpretation.
Kleiner Perkins since the suit by Pao has also been engaging in a major public relations response, promptly hiring a new female partner just days after the suit’s announcement, and publicly speaking out about the allegations, as reported in the New York Times. It seems the firm hopes to win the case in part in the media, and this response to the complaint neatly falls into that strategy. Unfortunately for Kleiner Perkins, however, many workers who’ve faced discrimination and harassment know how easy it is for employers to sweep away legitimate claims through creative interpretation of events. While Kleiner Perkins may have legitimate defenses to Pao’s claims, considering the undeniably male-dominated environment of Silicon Valley firms as a whole, and Kleiner Perkins in particular, its attempts at painting Pao as overly sensitive or misinformed may not be the best hand for them to play.

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