clock menu more-arrow no yes

Ellen Pao and the Case of the Mysterious Missing Admins

For Pao, whose polarizing personality may well trounce many of the subtleties of the case, establishing a larger gender narrative is key.

Vjeran Pavic

Ellen Pao said she filed her gender discrimination lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers partly because of three female administrative assistants who had been discriminated against because of their gender — and only with Pao’s lawsuit and a meaningful settlement would the firm take women’s issues seriously.

In Pao’s eyes, these aggrieved admins, coupled with her colleague Trae Vassallo’s repeated sexual harassment by a partner, showed a troubling pattern at the firm.

There is only one problem: No one in the courtroom seems to know where these admins are. No one seems to know the details of their grievances. No one in court, including Pao, even knows all their names.

The Kleiner Perkins squadron of lawyers and their press agent suggest this is because these alleged admins don’t exist, that they were invented to establish a nonexistent pattern and to sway the jury to see a nasty corporate culture. On the other side, the theory is that these admins settled with the firm and signed nondisclosure agreements, leaving them legally bound from speaking out about their problems.

Ellen Pao is not suing Kleiner Perkins for gender discrimination and retaliation on behalf of anyone but herself, so the details of these admins are not completely relevant to her case, but it certainly helps if she can establish a larger narrative of women having issues with the firm. So it’s been problematic that Pao can’t get any other women to step up and say they felt discriminated against by Kleiner Perkins. Her biggest win in the nearly month-long trial was getting former partner Trae Vassallo to testify that she’d been sexually harassed by former Kleiner Perkins Ajit Nazre (who was fired over the incident) — but Vassallo did not go so far as to say she felt the firm, as a whole, had problems.

For Pao, whose polarizing personality may trounce many of the subtleties of the case, establishing this larger gender narrative is key. But Pao and her team have offered little more evidence about these admins than the assertion that one of them may have been named Tina.

Here’s what we know:

Pao said that at first she didn’t tell anyone at Kleiner Perkins about unwelcome advances she received from Nazre, their rocky half-year romantic affair in 2006 and the mistreatment and discrimination she received at the firm after she broke off the relationship. She said after they broke up, Nazre would leave her out of meetings and otherwise work to damage her career at the firm.

By the summer of 2007, Pao was trying to quit the firm because of what she saw as a disrespectful atmosphere at the firm.

But then she heard something odd.

On her way out the door, Pao heard that other women may have also had been mistreated in a way that goes beyond an argumentative office environment — and possibly also by Nazre. There were three administrative assistants who said they were harassed or discriminated against by Kleiner Perkins partners.

So in June 2007 she decided to tell her Nazre story to three Kleiner Perkins leaders, the first of her many recollections of having complained about gender-related problems at the firm.

These admins were a major part of why she filed her suit — and they’ve been referenced by Pao’s attorneys frequently throughout the trial.

Here’s the quote from the original May 2012 complaint: “Upon information and belief, at least three administrative assistants complained that they were being harassed or discriminated against by KPCB partners in May 2007. After hearing of these complaints, Plaintiff expressed concern and warned KPCB’s Chief Operating Officer about Mr. Nazre with the intent of helping the firm avoid future problems. KPCB engaged an outside investigator in response to the complaints of the administrative assistants. The investigator interviewed Plaintiff, but did not ask any questions related to inappropriate behavior by Mr. Nazre.”

But who are the admins? Where have they gone?

One clue: Kleiner Perkins CFO Sue Biglieri testified that there was a 2007 investigation of a complaint by a receptionist who said she was pinched on the butt by then-California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger when he visited the office.

But according to Biglieri, it was found that Schwarzenegger was not in the office that day, and the woman making the complaint was a convicted felon.

Then: When Pao was asked about the three admins on the stand, she recollected the Schwarzenegger incident, and also that one of the other people involved may have had the first name Tina.

Pao also said she was told by Kleiner Perkins talent partner Juliet de Baubigny that Nazre was a “sex addict.” To her, that pointed to a larger unspoken history. “I thought she must have additional information and maybe about the administrative assistants,” Pao said.

Asked on the stand today whether she ever called Nazre a “sex addict,” de Baubigny replied, “No, that is completely ridiculous.”

Pao does not have to present someone else’s case in addition to her own, much less three other people’s. And Kleiner Perkins having other female partners like Mary Meeker testify they’ve never felt discriminated against based on their gender does not get the firm off the hook for their treatment of Pao.

But for such a crucial part of Pao’s narrative, the story about the admins is a peculiar one.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.