Ellen Pao is describing what it’s like to fit in with a system that doesn’t want to have you. “You’re taking feedback, and you’re trying to change, and you’re wondering what else you‘re doing wrong, and you’re carrying all that stress and all of that anxiety, and that shame of not fitting in, and feeling all this pressure, when actually there’s nothing you can do to fit in, in certain cases.” It’s a feeling that will be familiar to many people who have been both blessed and cursed with being a trailblazer. The mental pressure of being in the minority in a maledominated or white-dominated industry is hard to describe, but Pao has had more practice than most. In recent months, lawsuits, gender discrimination claims, rows over censorship and social media user revolts have engulfed many major tech companies, something that was part of her world many years earlier.
Pao, a Chinese American from New Jersey with degrees in engineering, law and business, is one of the most well-known female leaders in tech. In 2012, she launched a US$16m ($21.8m) gender discrimination lawsuit against her employer, venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, and lost. She then took on a high-profile role as interim chief executive of online message board Reddit, lasting less than a year before leaving amid a torrent of criticism from its users.
On paper, her career is no straightforward success story, but it is one of vindication. Discrimination, misinformation, online abuse and harm have become Silicon Valley’s hot topics, years after her eﬀ orts to address them put her in an uncomfortable limelight. Since her case, women have sued Facebook, Tinder, Microsoft, Twitter, Google and Uber, alleging gender discrimination. This upsurge in lawsuits was christened “the Pao effect”.
When we meet, Pao has just appeared at a conference organised by Common Sense Media, a non-profit focused on children’s use of tech, alongside Tristan Harris, a former Googler who’s now director of the Center for Humane Technology, which campaigns for tech companies to encourage their users to use their time well, rather than mindlessly.
Men like Harris, who turn on their own creations, have been hailed as revolutionaries and praised for their vision and bravery, when in fact, women and ethnic minorities have been pointing out problems for “many, many years”, Pao says. “Unfortunately, people haven’t listened to them.”
Among others, she names the targets of Gamergate—women who in some cases were driven from their homes and livelihoods in a 2014 row that was ostensibly about ethics in gaming journalism but essentially became a harassment campaign against women in the industry—as having raised the alarm many years ago.
Gamergate, she says, should have been a “canary in the coal mine” for tech firms. “It really kind of activated a lot of people, because they saw that they could drive people out of jobs,” Pao says.
Since then, social media has been plagued by problems with racism, harassment, bullying and misinformation, and companies are paralysed, under fire from their own users. Pao thinks they should have listened to those who were suffering much, much earlier. “It’s unfortunate that these perspectives have been ignored for so long when we’ve seen all these problems. Nobody really did anything about it when it would have been much easier to solve.”
Reddit was also one of the first organisations to face the problem of misinformation and groupthink, years before “fake news” became an inescapable issue and anti-vaccine theorists gained a frightening foothold online. Shortly after Pao joined in 2013 and before she became chief executive, a group of users decided that they had found one of the culprits of the Boston Marathon bombing, which killed three and injured hundreds. Unfortunately, they had the wrong man, Sunil Tripathi, a student who had gone missing a month before the marathon, was later found to have killed himself.
“This mob comes after this innocent individual, and all of a sudden it’s horrific. The search for him gets compromised, there are real life implications that are extremely scary. And we saw that on Reddit, just with people harassing and doxxing [publishing someone‘s private information on the Internet], sending SWAT teams and sending real-life threats. People had to change their real-life behaviour because of the behaviour on Reddit,” she says.
Later, as interim chief executive, Pao shut down areas of Reddit with names like “fat people hate” and “s— [n-words] say”, because they were spilling over into real life abuse. It was one of the decisions that led users to revolt, with 200,000 signatures added to a petition requesting her removal.
When she finally left Reddit in 2015, it was because “the board asked me to demonstrate higher user growth in the next six months than I believed I could deliver while maintaining Reddit’s core principles”. Now that Facebook, Twitter and Google are realising that growth at all costs has real world consequences, would she still face the same problem?
“I’m not sure that people have completely learned that lesson. I still think people are oriented towards growth. That is what the public markets are oriented towards, they look for metrics. I am hoping that people can develop better metrics, like signs of positive engagement,” she says.
On stage, Pao spoke about her worry that social media was affecting attention spans. She believes that technology’s impact on society and problems like addiction and overuse, which have also become urgent moral concerns in the last two years, can all be traced back to Silicon Valley’s lack of diversity.
“The problem with how tech treats women is a symptom—it’s part of a much bigger problem, of a very small group of people having fixed ideas and a fixed mindset about who succeeds, and then creating a whole system and structure oriented around that. You see it in the products, it’s oriented towards a certain type of person who generally has a good experience, until they don’t, which is where we’re headed now.”
Now, as part of advocacy group Project Include, Pao works with companies and chief executives to push diversity efforts. When she sits on panels and in boardrooms with powerful businessmen and venture capitalists, does she ever feel resentment at what she’s been through?
“It’s not something I would wish on anybody,” she says. “There isn’t like an ‘I wish you had experienced it so you could be in my shoes’. There’s a bit of ‘I wish you would be more open-minded’.”
Tech leaders are hailed as visionaries, she says, but this vision is often curiously absent when it comes to running their own companies.
“When it comes to looking at what’s happening to the people around you, when it comes to thinking about this dual class of employee, they don’t have creative ideas, they don’t have this sense of fairness. They want to change the world, but what about changing your own company first?”
She does see positive signs that a change is coming. “It’s taken all of these voices speaking together, it’s taken litigation, it’s taken people writing books and now we’re finally getting to a point where, in combination with this second wave of #MeToo, all of a sudden people are believing these stories that have been around forever,” she says.
Once a company hires a certain number of senior people from different backgrounds, she says, they can tap into their networks and hire more people like them, which increases momentum, something she saw at Reddit. “We had people at the leadership levels who were not your standard tech executives, and they were able to hire teams that were much more diverse, but also better quality and calibre.“
A failed lawsuit, public scrutiny of her personal life, an entire Reddit section dedicated to mocking her—has it all been worth it? She gets notes from people, both male and female, from under-represented groups who read her book, who say it helped them realise they weren’t the problem. “For them to be able to come out of the gate with a better understanding of the way the world works—it’s something I wish I had, and I wish my friends had, because we struggled for many, many years trying to ﬁ t into a system that was not going to ever have us.”
In her book Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change, Pao documented her efforts to follow Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg’s advice for women to “sit at the table” and avoid sidelining themselves, by taking a prime seat on a private jet during a business trip.
She said she was nevertheless ditched by the men she was travelling with on arrival in New York. “Taking your seat at the table doesn’t work so well, I thought, when no one wants you there,” she wrote. Sandberg exhorted women to do their best to fit in in male-dominated environments. Perhaps Pao’s legacy will be a step towards a world in which they don‘t have to try so hard.
Text by The Interview People
This story first appeared in the August issue of A.