Ellen Pao's Reddit exit: More than just another case of Internet sexism?

On Friday, Ellen Pao resigned as CEO of social media site Reddit, after more than 200,000 Redditors called for her ouster in an online petition.

Robert Galbraith/Reuters/File
Ellen Pao arrives at San Francisco Superior Court in San Francisco, California, March 24, 2015.

On Friday, Ellen Pao resigned as chief executive officer of the social media site Reddit after leading the company for a tumultuous eight months. Her dramatic exit came after more than 200,000 Reddit users demanded her ouster in an online petition.  

Over the past few years, a wide gender gap in the tech industry has exposed discrimination in the sector and pressured major corporations to hire more female employees. But despite their efforts, many women have turned their backs on the male-dominated industry, citing a "hostile" male culture and a lack of professionalism, reports the LA Times.

While Reddit denies claims that it discriminated against Pao because of her gender, skeptics point to factors that they claim prove otherwise. According to Adweek, 74 percent of Reddit users are male.

“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 Mitch Kapor, a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in an interview with the New York Times.

But the details of Ms. Pao's relationship with Reddit and the 2012 lawsuit she filed against a former employer suggest that her resignation may be more complex than a simple case of Internet sexism.

For one thing, Redditors have loudly supported another female admin, Victoria Taylor. On July 2, Reddit let go of Ms. Taylor, the director of talent and communications. Many users who managed “subreddits,” entries devoted to specific areas of interest, immediately protested the decision by shutting down their threads. According to their petition, subreddits “heavily relied” on her for smooth operations.

Last week, users claimed that several factors beyond Taylor’s dismissal prompted them to shut down their subreddits. They stressed their “underlying resentment against the [administrators] for running the site poorly – being uncommunicative, and disregarding the thousands of moderators who keep the site running.” 

Reddit administrators apologized in a statement released on the site last week:

We screwed up. Not just on July 2, but also over the past several years. We haven’t communicated well, and we have surprised moderators and the community with big changes. We have apologized and made promises to you, the moderators and the community, over many years, but time and again, we haven’t delivered on them. When you’ve had feedback or requests, we haven’t always been responsive. The mods and the community have lost trust in me and in us, the administrators of reddit.

The recent petition marked the second time disgruntled Reddit users denounced Pao’s decisions in less than two months.

In May, Pao clamped down on harassment after a company survey showed that many users left the site over abusive posts and content, banning five subreddits dedicated to ridiculing gay people, the obese, African-Americans, and others. Hundreds of users spoke against the ban, calling it censorship of a free and open online community.

Pao had already made headlines earlier this year after she lost a case against her former employer, investment firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

In the 2012 suit, she claimed that Kleiner denied her promotion because she made complaints that a male partner had harassed her, that Kleiner practiced gender discrimination, and that she was ultimately fired for her complaints.

In response, the firm claimed Pao underperformed and did not deserve a promotion. It denied allegations of gender discrimination and stressed that it has two senior women partners, more than most venture firms in Silicon Valley, Reuters reported. 

Jurors rejected all four of Pao’s accusations.

Yet there is a silver lining to Pao’s controversies. Since she filed her suit, female employees at Pantheon Ventures Ltd and CMEA, two other venture firms, and a co-founder at Tinder filed similar suits that were later settled.

But the ugly tone of the voices calling for Pao's dismissal, which included rape threats and death threats, indicated that there remains room for progress on gender equality in Internet forums and in Silicon Valley.  

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