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The Trial That Makes Silicon Valley Shudder

Ellen Pao's victory is nowhere near assured, but her case will echo in the tech industry for a long time

It’s possible to isolate one of the moments in which an ordinary gender discrimination trial—albeit one with extraordinary characters—reveals its broader significance. On Feb. 27, Ted Schlein, the ultra-marathon-running managing partner of the blue chip venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, was testifying about the seven-year employment of Ellen Pao, a 45-year-old former junior partner who alleges that her advancement at the firm was blunted by an atmosphere of pervasive sexism. Kleiner's lawyer asked: Hadn’t Pao complained repeatedly about being directed to sit in the outer edge of the room, instead of at the center table, during key meetings? Schlein flatly dismissed the charge, noting that it was a woman from outside the firm who had set up the seating chart for a meeting at which Pao felt slighted. Then he added: "I really don’t think it was a very big deal to us who sits at a table or who does not."

There are always two stories in every Big Trial: the case itself, with its conflicting sets of facts, and the wider narrative—the way those facts fit into the lives of millions of people outside the courtroom. The Ellen Pao case, now in its fourth week in a San Francisco courthouse, resonates wildly on both levels. The trial has become Silicon Valley’s version of Anita Hill’s Senate testimony during Clarence Thomas’s 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearing. Pao’s case revolves around accusations of more subtle forms of sexism and harassment than pubic hairs on Coke cans—boys-only dinners, frat-house conversation on private planes, and promotions that may or may not have been withheld because Pao was that rarest of breeds in the cosseted world of venture capital: a woman.