Female chief executives like Ellen Pao may reach the pinnacle in business only to discover that they have risen to the top of a precarious “glass cliff”.
That was the analysis of one expert in the aftermath of Pao’s decision to resign from Reddit late on Friday, after almost a week during which users hurled insults, hate mail and even death threats her way over the firing of a popular site administrator.
“Oftentimes, the women who inherit the problems are put in precarious positions, and if they fail, they are blamed for it,” said Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research and the lead researcher for Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, a book written by Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook.
Pao, who earlier this year became a symbol for gender imbalance in Silicon Valley when she lost a landmark discrimination lawsuit, leaves Reddit after around eight months. She will be replaced by one of the site’s co-founders, Steve Huffman.
On Friday, Pao posted a resignation letter on the site.
“In my eight months as Reddit’s CEO,” she wrote, “I’ve 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.”
Pao instituted measures against trolling and harrassment, causing resentment among many users and leading some to leave the site.
“I just want to remind everyone that I am just another human,” she wrote. “I have a family, and I have feelings.”
Sam Altman, a Reddit board member, also posted a statement.
“People are still people even if there is internet between you,” he said. “Disagreements are fine. Death threats are not, are not covered under free speech, and will continue to get offending users banned.”
Silicon Valley watchers and executive analysts, meanwhile, agreed that many female chief executives – certainly not just Ellen Pao – often confront a situation that sees women put in leadership positions when a company is going through a crisis or downturn and when the chance of failure is highest.
Barbara Annis, co-author of Work with Me: the 8 Blind Spots Between Men and Women in Business and the founding partner of Gender Intelligence Group, a New York firm specializing in gender diversity training, said: “What they [Pao’s critics] are trying to do to Pao is character assassination, and yes, her being a woman and a woman who [previously] filed a discrimination suit against her employer contributes to the insane fervor of which people responded to her decisions as CEO.”
Hashtags including #RedditRevolt and #ChairmanPao trended on Twitter this week. A petition on the social justice site Change.org called for Pao to resign. By the time she did so, it had attracted 213,000 signatures.
“There is a different lens for male CEOs and female CEOs,” said Annis, who was the first saleswoman at Sony in the 1980s and now provides training to employees at Fortune 500 companies including Microsoft, IBM and Deloitte. “Every mistake a female CEO makes gets attributed to her gender, and for men it’s not that way.”
Every mistake a female CEO makes gets attributed to her gender, and for men it’s not that way
But was Pao – who on Monday posted an apology which said: “We screwed up” – pushed off of the glass cliff by angry Reddit users, or did she simply decide that she had enough of the hate?
Annis said the effect of Pao’s gender discrimination suit against her former employer, venture capital giant Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers (KPCB), could follow her to other jobs.
“It’s a lose-lose for women like Pao, because even if they win they get labeled as a troublemaker for a long time, even when they go to other companies,” Annis said.
Indeed, the Change.org petition mentioned Pao’s discrimination lawsuit against KPCB, a Menlo Park-based venture capital firm for which she worked from 2005 to 2012.
“A vast majority of the Reddit community believes that Pao, ‘a manipulative individual who will sue her way to the top’, has overstepped her boundaries and fears that she will run Reddit into the ground,” wrote the author or authors of the petition.
Pao lost her case against KPCB when a jury decided her gender was not why she was not promoted. In June, judge Harold Kahn reportedly ordered Pao to pay almost $276,000 in legal fees to KPCB.
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Cooper said General Motors’ Mary Barra was another example of glass cliff situation. She was moved up to chief executive in January 2014, weeks before a major safety issues that lead to a series of recalls and pitched her straight into gruelling testimony in Congress over the automaker’s safety record.
“I haven’t seen this kind of reaction to egregious things male CEOs have done,” said Cooper. She also pointed to the case of Gurbaksh Chahal, the former CEO of software company RadiumOne who was convicted of domestic violence in 2014 and arrested again in San Francisco in May for allegedly assaulting another woman.
Chahal was fired but Cooper said there was not as much of a reaction in the media as there has been over Pao.
That there were problems at Reddit is evident. On Friday a media representative for the company declined to comment, but in her statement on Monday, Pao acknowledged such problems and promised to deliver on solutions.
The Change.org petition, which was posted by an account holder under the name Billy Johnson, said: “The communication between the Reddit administration team to its subreddit moderators is very lacking and rather unsettling after years of empty promises to the moderators to improve and provide tools to help run subreddits, and ultimately Reddit as a whole, smoothly.”
In her apology, Pao said: “We will improve tools, not just promise improvements, building on work already underway … we’re also going to figure out the best way for more administrators, including myself, to talk more often with the whole community.”
Ariane Hegewisch is study director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington DC, and an expert on workplace discrimination and sexual harassment issues. On Friday, she said the level of criticism directed at Pao may not have been because of her lawsuit, but because of the nature of the business she was in.
“Reddit is a medium that has engaged users and encourages participation,” Hegewisch said. “Users are valid forces and they are showing that they are angry with Pao.”
However, Hegewisch said, Pao’s anti-harassment policies were probably inspired by her gender discrimination suit. Her experience showed that Reddit needed the new policies.