Reddit chief executive Ellen Pao may have lost her gender discrimination lawsuit against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, but she is optimistic that the case will have played a part in encouraging women to speak out about unequal treatment at work.
In her first detailed interview since seeing a jury rule against all four of her claims against her former employer, Pao told the Wall Street Journal that she thinks more women feel confident enough to raise these issues, while warning that there is much more work to be done to solve them.
“I think it’s an issue of education and making people aware of it. Women who felt like they were uncomfortable before, that there was something that just wasn’t right, are hopefully now more comfortable pointing it out. They’re now able to point to discussions and research about it,” said Pao.
“I’m definitely seeing a lot of conversations on Twitter, in the press, in different areas. I think it’s something that men are starting to notice, too. A man reached out to me and said: ‘Thank you for highlighting this issue. I’m seeing it now, and I never saw it before’.”
Since the jury’s decision on 27 March, former employees at Twitter and Facebook have filed their own gender discrimination lawsuits, while the debate sparked by Pao’s case about Silicon Valley’s approach – and that of the wider business world – to women has continued.
In the interview, Pao suggested that while the most overt sexism may have been tackled in many workplaces, the problems that remain may be just as challenging to solve.
“I think we have moved through a lot of the really blatant issues that are clear-cut and now we’re getting to harder issues. When you look at the overall experience of women in the workplace, they are not succeeding, and that seems pretty clear-cut to me. So how do we fix that problem?” she said.
Pao hopes that men will enthusiastically join the conversation about gender discrimination, rather than avoiding it.
“I do think men need to be part of the conversation. And I think it has to be a conversation where men can learn from it, and part of that is by being part of it and engaging in it,” she said.
“You see men who will ask their wives, or they’ll ask their sisters or they’ll ask their co-workers who they know well. I think it starts out with those relationships where you feel comfortable, and it moves out from there as you become more aware about these issues.”
One of the key issues raised during Pao’s case was about women’s behaviour in the workplace being scrutinised in a different way to men, often leading to them being accused of being either too aggressive or too meek – while male colleagues might be celebrated for the former.
“Women get criticised on both ends, and you have this needle that you have to thread, and sometimes it feels like there’s no hole in the needle,” said Pao.
“From what I’ve heard from women, they do feel like there’s no way to win. They can’t be aggressive and get those opportunities without being treated like they’ve done something wrong.”
As the dust settles from the case, Pao is concentrating on her role as chief executive of online community Reddit, where she says she is practising what she preaches in order to foster a positive environment for women.
“It’s an opportunity for me to try to put in things that I think are going to create this equal opportunity environment for everyone,” she said, explaining that this includes changes to Reddit’s recruitment process.
“Men negotiate harder than women do and sometimes women get penalised when they do negotiate. So as part of our recruiting process we don’t negotiate with candidates,” she said.
“We come up with an offer that we think is fair. If you want more equity, we’ll let you swap a little bit of your cash salary for equity, but we aren’t going to reward people who are better negotiators with more compensation.”
How about the community itself? While Reddit is starting to “weed people out” in its recruitment process by asking them for their views on diversity, the actual site represents the whole, sometimes-toxic spectrum of opinion.
Pao has overseen changes including banning “involuntary pornography”, but says that she is taking care to balance privacy with free speech on the platform.
“One of the values is privacy. Another of the values is free speech, or an open platform for speech. Another one is the safety of our users, and people off the platform,” said Pao.
The Kleiner Perkins case and Pao’s work as Reddit chief executive has made her a lightning rod for criticism – and abuse – in recent weeks. In the Wall Street Journal interview, she admitted that she had received some hate mail, but that “overwhelmingly” most of the messages had been supportive.
“I think everybody has their own perspective, and some people can’t relate to me, and that’s okay,” said Pao.
“I think there’s a set of people who are seeing my story as being part of a much bigger story, and being part of their experiences. For me that’s very rewarding. It’s not going to be something for everybody, and that’s fine.”
This article was written by Stuart Dredge, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 7th April 2015 12.04 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010