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Fired Worker Testifies in Silicon Valley Gender Bias Lawsuit

Ellen Pao, who is suing Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers for gender discrimination and retaliation, arrives at San Francisco Superior Court in San Francisco, California, March 3, 2015.

A trial centering on California’s Silicon Valley’s work culture is unfolding this week in a high-profile gender discrimination lawsuit being heard in a San Francisco court.

Fired worker Ellen Pao is suing her former bosses at Kleiner Perkins, a venture capital firm where she was hired as a junior partner in 2005. She was fired in 2012 and contends in her suit that the workplace environment at the company was toxic to women and that she was unfairly passed over for promotion. She is asking for $16 million in damages.

The Mandarin-speaking Pao, who was educated at Princeton University and Harvard University, described how she was allegedly excluded from a dinner with former U.S. Vice President Al Gore because it was for men only and how uncomfortable she felt when listening to male guests of the firm talking about pornography on a private plane.

"I wanted an even playing field for women at the firm,” Pao said Tuesday, her second day of testimony. “ I wanted to have an environment where people who complained about problems related to discrimination or to other issues would be heard and that the firm would do something about it."

Kleiner Perkins has denied Pao’s claims and has said she was dismissed because of her hostile behavior to co-workers.

The case has riveted the high-tech community in northern California, where the work force is largely male and white, analysts say.

Washington attorney Lynne Bernabei, who has been following Pao’s case, said the type of company events Pao described in court “exclude women from the opportunities that would include clients."

The practice "by its nature is discriminatory or detrimental to women [who are] creating business,” Bernabei said. “It also creates a sexually hostile work environment” where women are excluded from male-dominated events.

During the trial, attorneys for Kleiner Perkins downplayed Pao’s claims and characterized the firm as a place where progress is based on ability and talent.

Investigator Stephen Hirschfeld, who has worked on similar cases for Kleiner Perkins, testified in the trial that it is not clear what it takes for an employee to become a senior partner at the venture capital firm.

“It was clear to me that there were no real criteria,” he told the court.

But some observers said that was not unusual. Lee Miller, managing director of Advanced Human Resources LLC, said that when employees get to an executive level, the criteria for advancement become more ambiguous.

“There are certain things that a firm looks for in a partner, because it may be different things for different people” Miller said. “Some people may be particularly good at analysis and picking companies, and that may be enough to become a senior partner. Another person may be good at bringing in new business and clients, and that may be enough to become a senior partner. … We’re talking intangible qualities.”

Pao’s testimony was expected to continue for several days.