The two trials of Ellen Pao

By Sarah Lacy , written on July 20, 2015

From The Gender Wars Desk

Twice in the course of a year, Ellen Pao has become central to a story of sexism in tech.

More interestingly she’s come to represent each of the two very different ways women experience sexism in their interactions with the tech world.

The first we saw in the Kleiner Perkins trial-- a case that explored the nature of why so many women don’t climb to the highest ranks of power in the tech world despite a proudly trumpeted “meritocracy.”

The second-- seen over the last month-- was a shit storm of gender and race trolling at Reddit. One that ultimately cost Pao her interim job.

There are plenty of overlaps between the two stories -- not least a central protagonist who never quite becomes the gender hero many people wanted her to be. But it’s important to understand what separates “Kleiner-gate” from “Reddit-gate.”

When I appeared on CNN’s Reliable Sources to talk about Pao a week ago, they wanted to position the Reddit story as more “sexism in Silicon Valley.” But that conflates two very different types of sexism that people talk about “in the tech world” that Pao just so happened to be a high-profile victim of.

The first has to do with equality of women in terms of the industries building tech companies. That is “sexism in Silicon Valley.” The second has to do with bullying and harassment using the Internet. That’s just sexism on the Web. As I said on CNN, it wasn’t her Kleiner Perkins partners tapping away four letter words on Reddit last week. It was trolls in basements around the world.

If we’re going to have an intelligent conversation about either issue, we need to acknowledge the difference between people building tech companies or working in the tech industry and anyone using the Internet. (Read: Billions of people on the planet.)

One is subtle, hard to prove, may or may not be born out of nefarious intentions, and sadly is pretty universal among most women I know working in male dominated industries. The other is anything but subtle. It’s aggressive, it’s offensive, it’s undeniable in its sexism. And while widespread, it’s only felt acutely once someone becomes a target for one reason or another online-- whether you’re a high profile woman or just a teenager who falls afoul of bullies.

One wants to undermine you, while pretending it’s not about your gender-- the other does the precise opposite, undermining you by screaming about your gender.

I’ve lived both, though thankfully, unlike for Pao, neither the institutional sexism nor the troll abuse has ever cost me a job. As I’ve written before, most of the sexism I’ve encountered in the Valley was mostly by well-meaning people who had unconscious biases or outdated notions about women. There are a lot of face-palm moments for sure. And I’m sure I’ve lost opportunities because of it. But I’ve also been given plenty of opportunities, so I can hardly say it’s universal.

By contrast, the most deliberate and bruising sexism I’ve experienced isn’t in the Valley, it’s on the Internet by anonymous trolls. Threats of gang rape. Vile comments of my appearance. You know the drill. The worst things ever said or written about me outside of anonymous trolls is on blogs like Gawker -- again, the Internet at work, not Silicon Valley kingpins.

This is not to say one kind of sexism is “better” or “worse” than another. The former-- while subtle and hard to prove-- may cost you more in money. For many, the latter is the one that can be more emotionally devastating. There’s a difference between a gender tax on your career and a gender tax on your emotional psyche.

But even though these are two radically different kinds of sexism, the experience of watching Ellen Pao go through the actual trial of Kleiner Perkins and the trial-by-troll at Reddit was remarkably the same. We rooted for her because no one should have to suffer unfairness or hate because of gender, race, sexuality or any other kind of “other-ness.” But somehow the outcome was unsettling and unsatisfying.

During the Kleiner Perkins trial, I heard many women say that Pao was an unsatisfying person to represent the many indignities women suffer in the tech world-- and business world writ large. The firm didn’t have clear advancement opportunities, and there wasn’t clear evidence that Pao deserved a promotion if they did. There wasn’t a clear smoking gun of sexism -- just a history of micro-indignities: The types of things that frankly most women working in a male-dominated partnership endure every day of their lives. This was likely why Pao lost her case, and why Kleiner allowed it to go to trial to begin with.

The most damning indictment to me of sexism at Kleiner Perkins was the fact that so many sub-par male partners were promoted and kept in premium positions. While there may be no evidence that Pao would have been a superstar VC, there’s no evidence she would have been any worse than the partners who departed after Kleiner’s shake up last year either. That points to some double standard, but hardly one that’s actionable... unless nearly every professional woman in America has a case.

Which brings us to Ellen Pao, troll victim. The abuse she received was so astoundingly gross, that it was certainly a stain on the Reddit community. But Pao hardly came away from Reddit looking like a martyr. She came across like an arrogant interim CEO who -- nothing to do with her gender -- didn’t understand the company, the community, or even how to use the product. She delivered her message via the press when she should have talked directly to the community in revolt. She had to apologize twice. And she acted so slowly that she dragged the whole affair out beyond the usual quick hit tech news cycle. When she finally tried to address the community, her comments got voted down, because she didn’t understand how to use the product well enough.

The press has subsequently reported that it was Reddit co-founder and chairman Alexis Ohanian who fired Victoria Taylor, which some have presented as an argument that Pao was somehow “framed” or set up for failure. But Pao was the interim CEO. Regardless of gender, the buck stops with her. It’s almost sexist to suggest otherwise. There is certainly no evidence she warned Ohanian the gates of hell would open up if this move was made, and more to the point, she handled the crisis clumsily after the fact.

As I argued here on Pando two weeks ago, Pao was the exact wrong fit for the job. And if you read the subsequent oped she wrote in the Washington Post she seemed to have no idea what she was getting into. In the Post, Pao tries to position Reddit as a mirror for the entire Internet --  good and bad. She also suggests the site was on the forefront of trying to beat back bullying.

Reddit is the Internet, and it exhibits all the good, the bad and the ugly of the Internet. It has been fighting this harassment in the trenches. In February, we committed to removing revenge porn from our site, and others followed our lead. In May, the company banned harassment of individuals from the site. Last month, we took down sections of the site that drew repeat harassers. Then, after making these policy changes to prevent and ban harassment, I, along with several colleagues, was targeted with harassing messages, attempts to post my private information online and death threats. These were attempts to demean, shame and scare us into silence. 

It’s a bold stance for someone to take days after she made an unfettered, groveling apology to that same audience.

And with all due respect to Pao, much of the rest of the world simply sees Reddit differently: As a place which represents what happens when free speech is allowed to trump all other concerns. Even Reddit defenders I’ve spoken to in recent weeks would not describe it as a “leader” in combating trolls and bullying. It’s a community that feels the good of an unfettered community outweigh the bad. It’s not a place like, say, Facebook where all users have to use real names, and the most mildly offensive piece of content could be flagged and removed.

To back up her suggestion that Reddit did more than others to combat bullying, Pao cites the vow to eradicate revenge porn from the site. Yes, that was something Reddit recently focused on -- but only after the previous CEO was fired after a scandal around Reddit and naked pictures from celebrity phone hacks. Many other sites on the Web didn’t make stamping this out a core part of their mission because they didn’t have to.

She continues:

This isn’t an easy problem to solve. To understand the challenges facing today’s Internet content platforms, layer onto that original balancing act a desire to grow audience and generate revenue. A large portion of the Internet audience enjoys edgy content and the behavior of the more extreme users; it wants to see the bad with the good, so it becomes harder to get rid of the ugly. But to attract more mainstream audiences and bring in the big-budget advertisers, you must hide or remove the ugly.

Yes, this is precisely why I argued that the Reddit that works, the Reddit that is one of the largest sites on the internet, the Reddit that relies more on volunteers than staff to function simply shouldn’t be a multi-billion commercial ad property. Reddit isn’t broken. Reddit works just fine. It’s just not what investors and people like Pao want it to be.

And she continues:

No one has figured out the best place to draw the line between bad and ugly — or whether that line can support a viable business model.

Actually, a lot of sites have. There are many community-based sites that have created viable business models. YouTube, Twitter, Facebook among them. Was it seriously news to Pao that Reddit is home to many of the most aggressive troll havens on the Web?

For Pao to say her departure means “the trolls have won” makes her sound even more out of touch with the site she was supposedly running. She simply didn’t understand what Reddit was, and she tried to make it into something it wasn’t. It was a recipe for disaster and now she seems to blame everyone but herself.

In her oped, Pao talks about the outpouring of support she received -- much of it privately-- during the Reddit shit storm. The notes of support I saw for her publicly-- whether in the press or on Reddit-- all included the same disclaimer to the effect of, “Look, I didn’t think she was doing a good job, but there is no excuse for this type of abuse….”

Still, you can’t support causes just because they are easy. Perhaps the reason that Pao is the gender hero we need-- even if she’s not the one we want-- is because she reflects both the complexity of the issue, and how nuanced the debate around it needs to be. The bottom line is no one deserves micro or macro indignities just because of the how or where they were born.