Ellen Pao became a hero to many when she took on the entrenched male-dominated culture of Silicon Valley. But sentiment is a fickle thing. Late Friday she fell victim to a crowd demanding her ouster as chief executive of the popular social media site Reddit.
Ms. Pao’s abrupt downfall in the face of a torrent of sexist and racist comments, many of them on Reddit itself, is quite likely to renew charges that bullying, harassment and cruel behavior are out of control on the web — and that Silicon Valley’s well-publicized problem with gender and ethnic diversity in its work force persists.
The debates over diversity in technology and invective on the Internet have been simmering for a long time, but they’ve boiled over in the last year. One reason is Ms. Pao’s lawsuit against her former employer, the venerable venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.
Her gender discrimination case, years in the making, failed to sway a jury, but did reveal a community that casually tolerated an atmosphere where machismo was prized and women often seemed to be relegated to secondary roles.
The dispute at Reddit, which arose from the dismissal of a well-liked employee earlier this month, drew much of its intensity from Ms. Pao’s lawsuit — and her gender.
“The attacks were worse on Ellen because she is a woman,” said Sam Altman, a member of the Reddit board. “And that’s just a shame against humanity.”
More than 213,000 people signed a petition demanding Ms. Pao’s resignation. After her departure was announced, Reddit users celebrated in an over-the-top fashion. “Rejoice internet brethren,” wrote one. “The great evil has been slain.”
Ms. Pao wrote in a Reddit post on Friday that in her eight months as chief executive, “I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly.” She added that “the good has been off-the-wall inspiring, and the ugly made me doubt humanity.”
“It was definitely a hard week,” Ms. Pao said in an interview, characterizing her exit as a mutual agreement with the board after having differing views about the company’s future. She began working at Reddit two years ago. Reddit is one of the most popular sites on the Internet, drawing more than 160 million regular monthly visitors.
Mitch Kapor, a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, noted that Reddit users were predominantly male and 18 to 29 years old.
“In my view, her job was made more difficult because as a woman, she was particularly subject to the abuse stemming from the pockets of toxic misogyny in the Reddit ecosystem,” said Mr. Kapor, now a partner at Kapor Capital.
Ms. Pao’s departure from Reddit was prompted after the online message board’s tight-knit community broke into upheaval when news broke that Victoria Taylor, a prominent and well-liked Reddit employee, had been suddenly dismissed from the company this month with no public explanation. In protest, Reddit users shut down hundreds of sections of the message board.
Ms. Pao apologized to the site’s members for the episode earlier this week. Reddit’s management made errors, “not just on July 2, but also over the past several years,” she said in a post on one of the site’s forums on Monday. “The mods” — moderators — “and the community have lost trust in me and in us, the administrators of Reddit.”
The ouster was another setback for Ms. Pao, who rejected a seven-figure settlement offer from Kleiner last fall to end her claims that she had been discriminated against at the venture firm because she was a woman.
In the wake of the trial, Kleiner said Ms. Pao owed the firm nearly $1 million in court fees but offered to waive the bill if there was no appeal. Ms. Pao countered that the sum was excessive. Judge Harold Kahn agreed and reduced Kleiner’s costs to $276,000. He noted in his ruling that “Ms. Pao has significant economic resources.”
In interviews, Ms. Pao has declined to detail what her next move is, but an appeal in the Kleiner case is quietly moving forward. The court reporter has been ordered to prepare transcripts, which is the next stage of the process. Ms. Pao does not need to give her basis for appeal for many months.
If she eventually succeeds in convincing a three-judge panel that the trial was unfair, Kleiner (and Silicon Valley, symbolically) would be on trial again. Ms. Pao’s lawyers did not return calls for comment on Friday. A lawyer for Kleiner declined to comment.
At Reddit, Ms. Pao will be replaced by Steve Huffman, the chief technology officer at Hipmunk, a travel search site. Adam Goldstein, chief executive of Hipmunk, said that Mr. Huffman would continue to oversee product and engineering at the site on a part-time basis. Mr. Huffman will also remain on Hipmunk’s board.
Mr. Huffman and Alexis Ohanian started Reddit in a two-bedroom apartment in a Boston suburb a decade ago. Users go to the site to discuss a wide range of topics, including current events and viral memes and gifs. The company, based in San Francisco, has 70 to 80 employees and relies largely upon its thousands of dedicated power users to govern the site.
Reddit is a private company, a majority of which is owned by Advance Publications, the parent company of Condé Nast. Last October, Reddit raised $50 million in venture capital from investors including Andreessen Horowitz, Mr. Altman and the rapper Snoop Dogg.
Ms. Pao said she would remain as an adviser to Reddit’s board for the remainder of the year. As for her immediate future, she said, “I plan to get a lot of sleep.”
photo credit: Christopher Michel
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