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Silicon Valley's Gender Discrimination Lawsuit Just Went To Jury

The trial that has captivated Silicon Valley had its closing arguments today. Here's what happened — and what's at stake.

Posted on March 25, 2015, at 4:57 p.m. ET

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Ellen Pao leaves a courthouse on March 10.

Tuesday, after 20 days in court and years of legal wrangling, the two sides in Ellen Pao's gender discrimination case against the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield and Byers faced off in closing arguments before a standing-room-only crowd.

It was brutal.

Over the course of three hours, Pao's legal team painted Kleiner Perkins as a law-breaking boys club that failed to support its female employees, and then attempted to shut them up when they raised concerns about the firm's culture. "The law is meant to protect people who stand up," Pao's lawyer, Alan Exelrod said, addressing the jury directly in front of hundreds of onlookers. "In Kleiner Perkins culture, when you stand up, you get slammed down."

But a few hours later, Kleiner Perkins attorney Lynne Hermle suggested Pao's decision to stand up wasn't quite so principled. She dismissed Pao's claims against the firm as "meritless, frivolous," characterizing Pao as an employee who blamed everyone but herself for personal failures and then attempted to cash out.

"These claims are simply a continuation of Ellen Pao's attempts to blame others for her failings," Hermle said. "She chose this path that she thought would lead to a multimillion dollar windfall for herself."

Pao, a former Kleiner Perkins partner who now serves as interim CEO of Reddit, sued the storied venture capital firm in 2012, alleging gender discrimination and retaliation in the wake of a brief consensual affair with former Kleiner partner Ajit Nazre. Pao ended the affair after learning Nazre wasn't separated from his wife, and claims that Nazre then retaliated against her by excluding her from meetings and emails, and hampered her chances for a promotion she deserved.

Throughout the case, Pao's team has argued that male Kleiner Perkins partners were paid more and promoted faster than their female counterparts; that office culture was shot through with inappropriate sexual behavior; that women were often asked to perform clerical duties, for which they were overqualified; and that the firm's HR apparatus failed to guard against and punish sexual harassment.

The case has become something of a lightning rod for gender equality issues in tech, and is being followed particularly closely in Silicon Valley. Last week a former Facebook employee sued the company for sexual discrimination and sexual harassment. Two days later a female software engineer at Twitter filed a class action lawsuit against the company alleging its promotion process is biased toward men.

Pao's case centers on four claims: First, that Kleiner Perkins discriminated against Pao based on her gender; second, that the firm retaliated against Pao; third, that it failed to take the steps necessary to prevent gender discrimination; and finally, that the firm retaliated for this lawsuit by firing Pao. At stake is $16 million in claimed compensatory damages — and potentially tens of millions more if the jury concludes that there's clear and compelling evidence that Kleiner Perkins acted maliciously in terminating Pao, which would merit punitive damages..

"We are all here today because Kleiner Perkins broke the law," Alan Exelrod, Pao's lawyer, said as he began his closing argument. "Kleiner Perkins, no matter how powerful and successful it is, is not above the law."

Continuing, Exelrod described Pao as a remarkable employee with good investment instincts, who was systematically set up to fail and punished for standing up for what's right. Core to his argument: that Kleiner Perkins was "a boys club" that engaged in "deliberate exclusion of women" and allowed "men [to be] judged by one standard and women by another."

Defending Kleiner Perkins against these allegations was Orrick, Herrington, and Sutcliffe attorney Lynne Hermle, who argued that Pao's experiences at the firm were largely of her own making. She painted Pao as a prickly opportunist who failed to succeed at Kleiner, despite close mentoring and the firm's claimed commitment to hiring and supporting women.

"[Pao] was not a fit for the team-based culture at the heart of venture capital," Hermle argued, noting that Pao had fraught relationships with a number of co-workers. "It was all about her, and not about the partnership." Underlining that argument: a slide titled "Pao's numerous conflicts: What is the common denominator?" Hermle's unspoken answer: Pao herself.

As for Kleiner, Hermle said, "there may be discrimination in venture capital — the numbers are certainly low — but there was and is no gender discrimination at Kleiner Perkins, where very strong and accomplished women continue to succeed."

After Hermle's presentation, which ran through Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning, Pao's lawyer, Therese Lawless, rebutted Hermle's closing, reiterating the gender equality issues at the heart of the case.

"[Kleiner Perkins is a place] where men are promoted over equally qualified women," she said. "They have their club, and they're going to decide who can come in and who can't. It's not OK, and it's illegal."

Lawless then made one final plea to the jury: "Just remember. You are the conscience of this community. And let Kleiner Perkins and the venture capital firms know that every employee who works hard deserves a fair and equitable workplace."

The jury, composed of six men and six women, began its deliberations Wednesday. A decision is expected early next week at the latest.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.