As Ellen Pao testifies for the first time in her closely watched gender discrimination and retaliation trial today, the question is not really her investment decisions or how much money she brought to the firm that fired her — it’s whether she’s likable.
Pao is suing her former employer, the storied venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and asking for $16 million in damages. And to win, she may have to prove she’s charming and friendly.
The defense argues Pao was lawfully fired largely because she was pretty unpleasant. On the stand, testimony from those who work for the firm have described her as: “Very negative,” “entitled,” “not a warm and fuzzy person” and in need of “softening.” In opening remarks, Lynne Hermle, the defense attorney for Kleiner Perkins, argued that Pao was so atrociously difficult that she deserved to be fired even though she brought the firm money: “An IPO isn’t the be-all and end-all of success,” she said.
Every day during this trial, for hours, Pao’s character has become a central point to the defense’s testimony. There’s an odd dissonance to the character assault, in which she’s both too quiet and too aggressive: “She seems passive, reticent, waiting for orders with her relationships with ceos. … I wish she had more ego about what these companies could be accomplishing.”
She was seen as suspect: “Not sure I really trust her motivations,” one partner wrote.
Entitled: “[Pao] seems to have a sense of entitlement rather than earning her position.”
Just not fun: “Kind of a downer,” one person testified on behalf of the firm.
But then there have been surprising glimmers of testimony that are completely the opposite.
While Aileen Lee, a former partner at the firm, took the stand, Pao’s lawyer, Alan Exelrod, highlighted a holiday gag Lee wrote about fondly in a recommendation letter in 2007: “On the personal side, Ellen has a dry sense of humor, a sharp wit, and a loyal, protective nature. People are still laughing about her holiday gag presentation from this past December, which is no small feat in our KP tradition.”
How did this fit in with the portrait of Pao as the downer misanthrope?
For better or worse over these next few days in court, Pao’s charm will be the question.
We’ll be covering her testimony live here once it starts.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.