When Ellen Pao took the witness stand four months ago, accusing the most powerful venture-capital firm in the most powerful new industry of pervasive sexism against her and powerful women like her, she talked about the “right path”.
Pao’s own attorney asked the 46-year-old executive why she continued to fight Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the firm that accused her of being a bad employee, even as she had become the top executive at Reddit, the influential social-media website that is infamous for nothing if not its trolls. The site’s former contributors – Pao now among them – describe it as a kind of misogynist fire swamp where “harassment swarms”, even and especially for an accidental feminist champion like its suddenly former CEO.
“I think there should be equal opportunities for women and men to be venture capitalists,” Pao said calmly that March morning as reporters, technology observers and a jury listened closely to the woman her co-workers said lacked “thought leadership”.
“I wanted to make sure my story was told.”
Now that Pao has suddenly resigned from Reddit, amid both user revolt and increasing recrimination from the landmark workplace-discrimination suit she lost this year, that story has only become more intriguing. Both the international profile of her trial and her ensuing decision to curb Reddit’s trolls made Pao a champion for women and minorities in 2015, and those who have followed her from the courtroom to the subreddit comments remained assured that such a bold legacy would continue.
Reddit board member Sam Altman said after Pao’s apparently mutually agreed exit on Friday that Reddit would not reverse its crackdown on subreddits devoted to harassment – and at least one moderator who participated in recent protests against Pao said those changes were among her best decisions during eight transformative, tumultuous months at the helm.
“Ellen specifically stated: ‘We’re banning behavior, not ideas,’” Jared Shenefield, who moderates Reddit’s cooking forum, told the Guardian on Saturday. “I think that was a good move – probably the best move since she became the interim CEO.”
Pao stepped down amid massive protests from moderators like Shenefield, upset by the sudden firing of talent director Victoria Taylor, who coordinated Reddit’s popular “Ask Me Anything” feature, and from users angered by the shuttering of five hate-filled forums, including r/fatpeoplehate and r/transfags. A petition calling for Pao’s ouster snowballed, gathering more than 213,000 signatures.
Pao denied that the unrest drove her out: “Ultimately, the board asked me to demonstrate higher user growth in the next six months than I believe I can deliver while maintaining reddit’s core principles,” she wrote in a Reddit post.
But her two-plus years deep in the business world’s ultimate battle of modern sexism and out in front of corporate reform remain a lesson for the victims of that bias.
The “terrorists” of the internet now have their first scalp, lending credibility to what one industry insider called “the Pao-haters”.
Even in defeat, it appears, Pao still serves as an emblem of the tech world’s backward treatment of women and minorities – and an example of how to fight back.
Through a spokeswoman, Pao declined to comment specifically on her resignation or future plans, and her attorneys did not respond to a request for an update on her pending court appeal. Still, a look back at her journey through legal battles and unpopular reforms at Reddit reveals just how galvanizing and transformative this high-tech heroine has become.
Improbable as it may have seemed for the most famous fighter in the war against workplace discrimination, Pao began consulting for Reddit, of all places, soon after she was fired from Kleiner Perkins in late 2012.
Even as the social media site was confronting conspiracy theories around the Boston marathon bombing and corporate branded posts, Pao took a full-time position in business development and strategic partnerships for the site in April 2013.
When Reddit CEO Yishan Wong resigned suddenly last November, Pao stepped in. Wong later wrote on the Q&A site Quora that the top job at Reddit was “incredibly stressful and draining”, and after two and a half years, the work was having “significantly detrimental” effects on his personal life.
Altman, the Reddit board member who also serves as president of seed funder Y Combinator, said in an “Ask Me Anything” chat on Friday that when Wong quit, Pao stepped in. “She walked into an incredibly difficult situation and [moved] the ball a good bit down the field for reddit,” he said.
Pao, a self-described introvert, has said that she never set out to become a feminist figurehead. She was hired at Kleiner Perkins in 2005 as senior partner John Doerr’s chief of staff, but Doerr later helped her transition into a junior investment role, where she bumped up against the numerous slights that formed the basis for her sex-bias lawsuit.
Another of Kleiner Perkins’ junior partners, Ajit Nazre, allegedly pressured Pao into having an affair. After she broke it off, he began retaliating against her, leaving her out of crucial email discussions and in-person meetings with potential clients that could have led to important deals, she testified.
Although Pao reported Nazre’s behavior to higher-ups, he stayed on at Kleiner Perkins; his only reprimand was receiving a smaller-than-expected bonus. Nazre was later fired after coming on to another junior partner – but not before he was promoted to a highly lucrative senior-partner position.
Pao portrayed her experience with Nazre as representative of the sexist culture at Kleiner Perkins and, to some extent, in Silicon Valley as a whole. She and a former partner at the firm testified about key networking events that excluded women, including a ski trip with potential business partners and a dinner party at the home of former vice-president Al Gore. She and another female partner were asked to play secretary at a Kleiner Perkins event; when they complained, at least one higher-up failed to understand why the request was offensive.
Meanwhile, Pao’s superiors testified that she was repeatedly criticized in performance reviews and ultimately fired for her behavior – behavior that is often lauded in men but criticized in women. She was accused of being too pushy and aggressive, and for elbowing in on other partners’ business deals. Paradoxically, her Kleiner Perkins colleagues also accused her of being too quiet, saying that she failed to “own the room”.
But the death-by-a-thousand-cuts sexism Pao described in court, and which many women report experiencing in the office daily, often isn’t enough to prove discrimination. The jury found that Pao’s gender wasn’t a factor in Kleiner Perkins’ decision not to make her a senior partner, and that her complaints were not a substantial reason for her termination.
Immediately following that verdict in March, Pao insisted that her loss in the landmark case, however devastating, did not mean that she had failed. To be sure, her story was being told – not just in the live blogs of technology websites read by insiders and discussed on Twitter at-replies, but across the world.
“If I’ve helped to level the playing field for women and minorities in venture capital, then the battle was worth it,” she said after the verdict. “The problem of gender discrimination in venture capital has received attention around the globe. While today’s outcome is a disappointment, I take consolation in knowing that people really listened.”
On Twitter, women were already showing that they had listened. The #ThanksEllen hashtag was lofted by users who were grateful Pao had taken on on Silicon Valley’s entrenched sexism.
“We don’t question the verdict; we appreciate the risk she took by telling her story,” Lori Hobson, a business developer at Function Engineering, said on Twitter. Another group took out a full-page newspaper ad that said, simply, “Thanks Ellen.”
As it turned out, Pao was just getting started.
The fall of ‘Chairman Pao’ – and Reddit’s unfinished business
By the time Pao’s trial began in February, pervasive discrimination and harassment directed at women in technology and on the internet had already metasticized from the stuff of at-replies to an international conversation – if not an all-out confrontation.
A video went viral last October illustrating more than 100 catcalls and come-ons a woman encountered during an eight-hour walk through New York City. The trollscame out for the maelstrom known as GamerGate to shine a spotlight on the violent harassment and threats lobbed at outspoken women in video-game culture.
That Pao challenged discriminatory patterns at Kleiner Perkins and, by virtue of that extended conversation, the rest of Silicon Valley, raised unspoken questions about her leadership at Reddit. Forums there served as a hive-mind for GamerGate, hosted leaked naked celebrity photos and fostered attacks on women, overweight people and minorities.
“Reddit can be seen as a swamp of standing water that’s been allowed to breed pestilent mosquitoes,” said Katherine Cross, a former Reddit moderator and PhD student in sociology at the City University of New York, where she studies online abuse. “Even if one ignores the site, it has become increasingly difficult to ignore its effluence. Harassment swarms are ginned up by the website’s more toxic users and communities.”
Although Pao, who had taken over as Reddit’s interim leader four months earlier, was in the courtroom every day of her month-long trial, her thoughts clearly hadn’t strayed far from Reddit. Within days of the Kleiner Perkins verdict, Pao ended salary negotiations at Reddit, a tradition which studies have shown often put women at an economic disadvantage.
Pao had sought roughly $16m in past and future lost wages at trial, arguing that without Kleiner Perkins’ bias, she would have made a lot more money. The topic of pay inequity was fresh in Pao’s mind.
Two months later, Reddit announced a ban on any forums, or subreddits, “that allow their communities to use the subreddit as a platform to harass individuals when moderators don’t take action,” Pao wrote.
Cross, the former moderator and sometimes a target of GamerGate’s vitriol, called Pao’s reforms inspirational. “It was the first time someone at the site had publicly suggested the site had a responsibility to both its non-toxic users and the wider internet,” she told the Guardian.
Not everyone agreed. Angry Reddit users called her “Chairman Pao” and compared her to Adolf Hitler.
Mark VerHill, a longtime Reddit member, launched a petition under a pseudonym, calling for Pao to step down as CEO. He said users accused her of “suing her way to the top” and that her policies – championed by the women and minorities those policies were protecting – would run Reddit into the ground.
Other users and moderators felt similarly, insisting that communication channels between the site’s leaders, its paid forum administrators and its unpaid volunteers was nothing short of abysmal.
When the popular moderator Taylor was fired this month, the Pao reckoning began in earnest, and a number of moderators closed more than 300 subreddits for 24 hours.
Shenefield, the moderator who took /r/Cooking dark, said the revolt was meant to be pacifistic, not the beginning of an ouster: “Doing a blackout was the way to have our voices heard without being so hateful,” he told the Guardian. “It worked.”
Shut out of their favorite forums, Reddit users flocked to the petition, bringing more media attention to the tumult.
On Monday, Pao publicly acknowledged the communication gaps and apologized for Reddit’s “long history of mistakes”, but said it would take time for Reddit to deliver concrete results.
Less than five days later, she was out the door.
The accidental success of a user revolt against the accidental feminist hero of the Valley came as a surprise to many, especially considering that Reddit board members had expressed interest in hiring her as the site’s permanent CEO, as Kleiner Perkins attorneys told a San Francisco judge in February.
Already, concerns have blossomed that Reddit reforms initiated in Pao’s abrupt eight-month tenure would quickly become abandoned.
But Altman said in his AMA that wouldn’t happen. He urged Reddit’s community to learn to balance authenticity and compassion, saying that co-founder and new CEO Steve Huffman’s biggest challenge “will be continuing the work Ellen started to drive this forward”.
Altman denied that the petition or the hateful words aimed at Pao had anything to do with Pao’s resignation, saying he was surprised by how cruel Reddit users had been to her.
“While she wasn’t the CEO Reddit needed, she was not deserving of all the hate she received,” said Shenefield, the current Reddit moderator.
Journalist Susan Antilla, who broke the story of sexual harassment at Smith Barney and other Wall Street titans in the 1990s and later wrote Tales from the Boom-Boom Room about those scandals, noted that anyone hoping to change the tenor on Reddit – whose millions of users trend toward 18- to 29-year-old men – will face an uphill battle.
“The assumption by Pao-haters is that Taylor did nothing wrong and that Pao and management were wrong to fire her,” she said. “This is the tech world, folks, where firings and other disruptions are worn like a badge. Suck it up.”
Alexis Ohanian, who co-founded Reddit with Huffman in 2005, revealed in a Reddit post on Friday that firing Taylor was his decision, adding that Pao’s story is far from over: “I have admired her fearlessness and calm throughout our time together and look forward to following her impact on Silicon Valley and beyond.”
Cross, the former moderator turned target of the trolls, agreed, saying that Pao became a target herself – precisely because she made gender a topic of discussion and acknowledged that prejudice and harassment were as much of an unsolved problem as she left them.
“I think she’ll continue to be seen, for good and for ill, as someone who refused to be compliant about sexism,” she said of Pao, “both in the workplace and on social media.”