By Sarah McBride and Dan Levine
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Venture capitalist John Doerr on Tuesday sought to fend off allegations of sexism at his firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, in a gender discrimination lawsuit targeting the firm, insisting he had been a strong advocate for women there.
Doerr, viewed as the firm’s leader, talked up his backing of women as both venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. But he also had to handle questions - from whether he had denied former Kleiner Perkins partner Ellen Pao a company board seat because she was pregnant to whether he had said she had “a female chip on her shoulder.”
Whether the firm supported women as much as men is a major point of contention in the case, which has helped spark a broad and ongoing discussion about sexism in Silicon Valley.
Pao brought suit in 2012, alleging she suffered discrimination and retaliation after ending a brief affair in 2006 with another partner, Ajit Nazre.
“Almost always, women are better leaders than men,” Doerr told the court, saying he was “a strong advocate” for women and for Pao.
Earlier in the day, Pao’s lawyer, had asked questions concerning RPX, a company in which Pao had led a highly profitable investment for Kleiner Perkins, and on whose board she wanted to sit. Doerr said he had not denied her the board seat because she was pregnant but because another partner was more qualified to serve on the board.
He also denied telling an outside investigator hired by Kleiner that Pao had “a female chip on her shoulder,” a comment recorded in documents from the investigator.
Pao and Doerr agreed the two initially had a good relationship, with Pao at one point calling Doerr a “surrogate father” and Doerr testifying he gave her gifts such as a bicycle and a vacation.
But their relationship deteriorated over the years. After Pao told senior partners at the firm in 2007 about the then-ended relationship, she and Nazre said they could work together. But Pao said Nazre started cutting her out of important meetings and decisions.
The discriminatory conduct toward her spread over the years to other partners, Pao alleges, leading her to miss out on a key promotion.
Doerr testified Tuesday he had initially wanted to fire Nazre over the affair, but agreed to keep him at the firm, with Nazre losing a portion of his bonus.
"The biggest punishment was I told him I had lost confidence in his ability to be a leader at the firm," Doerr said. The next year, Nazre was promoted to senior partner. Nazre left the firm in 2012.
The firm has vehemently denied Pao’s allegations. Kleiner’s lawyer, Lynne Hermle, said in court last week that the firm treated women fairly and did not promote Pao because she lacked talent.
But Pao’s attorney, Alan Exelrod, said the firm systematically failed to promote women to senior investing partner. He said Pao excelled at her work,
The case is Pao v. Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers LLC, CGC-12-520719, in California Superior Court, in the County of San Francisco.
(Editing by Christian Plumb and Steve Orlofsky)