'What did you expect?' Women in tech reflect on Ellen Pao's exit from Reddit

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It is 2015 and for many working in tech, it is still not a good time to be a woman.

Just ask Ellen Pao, who resigned as interim CEO of Reddit last week, after being subjected to abuse from the site’s members. Or ask other women in the industry who have had similar experiences. These women are not surprised by what has happened to Pao – the abuse, the resignation, the lack of support from her company – in fact, many of them have anticipated it. Yet despite that, they are undeterred and hope that one day down the road, maybe as soon as 2020, women and men could be treated as equal in Silicon Valley.

As she resigned, Pao took the opportunity to remind the site’s members that she is just another human, with family and feelings, and that she has seen the good, the bad and the ugly on Reddit.

“The good has been off-the-wall inspiring, and the ugly made me doubt humanity,” she said. “Everyone attacked on Reddit is just another person like you and me. When people make something up to attack me or someone else, it spreads, and we eventually will see it. And we will feel bad, not just about what was said.”

Women – and men – in Silicon Valley have watched with bated breath as Pao filed, then argued in court and lost her historic gender discrimination lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins. Then this month, once again, they watched as the drama at Reddit unfolded.

Many articles have been written on whether Pao had been the right person for the job or whether she had been pushed off the glass cliff – where women are brought in to save or reform a struggling company and then blamed when they can’t succeed. In a matter of days, Pao had gone from the woman responsible for the firing of Victoria Taylor, the popular moderator of the Ask Me Anything subreddit, to a victim – a woman who took the fall for a decision of another man, Alexis Ohanian, according to the former Reddit CEO, Yishan Wong.

“[Ohanian] had different ideas for AMAs, he didn’t like Victoria’s role, and decided to fire her,” Wong wrote on Reddit.

What had happened to Pao – both her lawsuit and her departure from Reddit – are further driving the conversation about women’s role and treatment in the tech industry, a number of women told the Guardian this week.

Here is what they had to say:

‘It was inevitable that they would turn on her’

Not everyone is surprised by what had happened at Reddit.

“Ellen was at the center of a high-profile sexual discrimination suit versus a major VC firm and she was put in charge of the teenage boy section of the internet. What did you expect was going to happen? It was inevitable that they would turn on her,” said Kaliya Young, an expert on digital identity who blogs under the name Identity Woman. She is also founder of She’s Geeky, a women-in-tech organization.

While attacks on Pao and her departure might not have an effect on the industry as whole, they have further exposed what female leaders in tech deal with on daily basis, Young explained.

“What it has done is made visible the vitriol that women in tech experience if they rise in prominence in almost any way in this industry,” said Young.

“The dialogue is good. The fact that people are really talking about it … it makes leaders think twice about saying and doing discriminatory things,” said Stacey Epstein, chief marketing officer at Banjo, a tech company that gathers social media posts based on location in real time.

Yet for some women partaking in this type of dialogue – especially by sharing their personal experience – it can be equivalent to setting off a tripwire that detonates an avalanche of online threats and attacks.

‘Speaking out can trigger the internet troll brigade’

One woman who did not want to be identified said that in 2007 she attended an ETech conference where a scheduled speaker, Kathy Sierra, who is a web developer and blogger, had to back out after receiving death threats.

“I was in the audience watching this and it had an impact on me. At the time, I was younger and it was earlier on in my career and it really made me wonder about my future,” she said.

When she sought advice from her female mentor, she was basically told “what happened to Kathy is likely to happen to you too – it’s normative”.

“So I made a choice to continue my career and to keep my head down and not really raise my profile outside of my little niche industry. Lo and behold, years later I am an outspoken woman and am getting implicit rape threats on Twitter from men in my industry. I can handle it now. I am stronger,” she said. “We shouldn’t be in the industry where you have to be willing to accept that: ‘This will happen somewhere, at some point in your career. Deal with it.’”

She went on to say that during the interview with the Guardian, she wondered what speaking out on this issue would mean for her. “Now I am like, well, if you write that, am I going to attract more of that kind of behavior towards me? I don’t want that and so even speaking out about it can sort of trigger the internet troll brigade to come at you.”

Ellen Pao: villain or victim?

To Epstein, the chief marketing officer, Reddit’s business model helped create what she described as an ongoing soap opera at the company and the flood of commentary from the press and the site’s members.

Partly to blame was the shifting narrative. Last week, the narrative was that of Pao as a villain for firing Victoria Taylor. This week it’s of Pao as a victim after she took the fall for Ohanian’s decision to fire Taylor, argued Epstein.

“It’s all because facts unfold,” she said. “If you can clearly communicate the facts and people really understand what’s really going on, then you have less of that public vocal commentary.”

In their initial comment on the situation, over two weeks ago, Pao and Ohanian apologized for not properly communicating with the Reddit community. The comment, to say the least, did not satisfy their members.

Many insist that had Pao been at another company – one less volatile and not as dependent on the unpaid labor of those who spend their days in the company’s subreddits or online forums – this would not have happened.

“Look at Facebook and Sheryl Sandberg. Do you think that a tenth of this would have happened to her if she worked there?” said Brianna Wu, a video game developer and one of the women who have been threatened as part of the Gamergate controversy.

What many believe led to Pao’s departure was the push to monetize Reddit.

“They don’t have a revenue stream anywhere near Facebook, for instance,” explained Wu, adding that Reddit in its current form is so radioactive that no regular company was going to tie themselves to it. “It makes sense that they need a strong leader to come in there and make changes to the site so that advertisers can advertise there.”

“I think you have this pressure to make Reddit make money and be profitable,” said Young, the founder of She’s Geeky. “Why are we trying to exploit communities of people who want to hang out and chat? Why do we have to make money off of them?”

In the end, Pao’s attempts to lead are what led to her departure, said Wu.

“What we saw is a leader trying to step up and take accountability. Reddit is her ship. She is responsible for everything that happens there,” she said. “Yet at the same time, you are seeing an internal culture that is so broken that it would make it impossible for anyone to lead. It’s a situation that no one could correct.”

Performance versus gender

What has become clear for many of the women in Silicon Valley is that there are two issues at play – performance and gender discrimination. The two are often intertwined in conversation about women like Pao, but according to them should be treated as two different issues.

“There is an adult conversation to be had about Ellen Pao’s performance at Reddit and an adult conversation that can be had about her being the right person for the jobs,” said Wu. She added that while she can see where those saying that Pao was not the right person for the job are coming from, the attacks on her are uncalled for.

“It’s undeniable that the attacks on her have been really personal, sexist, and have a violent tone to them. They are racist. They are extremely gendered in nature,” she said. “For me, it’s very disheartening to watch the attacks on her. I think she was held to a standard that her male predecessors at Reddit were not. I think that really empowers people who attacked her in that way.”

For some, what happened at Reddit was not really a gender issue.

Epstein told the Guardian that she is especially irritated by the theory that the entire situation was a plot that set Pao up to fail.

“There is no way that was masterminded to get her out of there, solely because she is a woman. If that was the case, they would have never brought her in to that position anyway. If they didn’t believe that a woman could do the job then they wouldn’t have put the woman in the job,” she said.

Making everything about gender could empower those attacking women as not being fit to lead, argued Epstein.

“Sometimes when you make these claims that everything bad that has happened to a woman in business is because she is a woman, then you give fuel to the other side and so it’s frustrating to me. If she wasn’t doing a good job as an interim CEO, she should resign and she should be let go. This doesn’t have to do with gender. They are two separate issues.”

Epstein did admit that because Pao’s gender discrimination case against Kleiner Perkins was so public, “it is easy to jump to the conclusion that the recent Reddit situation must be based on gender too”. Instead of jumping to conclusions, people should assess each situation individually, she said.

What’s next?

Epstein, a mother of two girls, believes that young women entering tech are not deterred by what’s playing out in the public sphere. As a woman who has been in the industry for over 20 years, she said things have changed drastically from when she graduated and the main advice available to her was to dress like a man if she wanted to succeed.

“As women, we just have to go after it and do a great job. The opportunities are there for us,” she said, adding that her generation of women have created a new environment for the young women entering the sector today. “They are not reading these articles and seeing what’s going on and saying: ‘I better do something else.’ They feel empowered, they feel motivated to show that they can do it.”

“Long term, women in tech are going to keep showing up and eventually we are going to change this culture,” she said.

How soon is eventually? “Five years. Five years from now,” said Wu.

“It is my hope that five years from now I won’t be talking to the press about this as much. We are in a period where the tech industry has hit rock bottom with the way it treats women, which is why we talked about it so much last year and this year,” she said, adding that it’s not because of women like her and Pao and Anita Sarkeesian, but because the industry is changing and men are losing ground.

“Overall, we [women] are in a great place,” Epstein told the Guardian. “I think women who are looking to start their careers are feeling inspired by women before them and feeling that the opportunity is ripe for the picking.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Jana Kasperkevic in New York, for theguardian.com on Thursday 16th July 2015 16.11 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010