Was Former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao Set Up To Take A Fall?

Ellen Pao, the former interim CEO of Reddit, stepped down last week at least partly due to a user revolt over the firing of Victoria Taylor, a popular employee among users who helped to facilitate AMA (Ask Me Anything) discussions. However, it came out this weekend that Pao was not responsible for Taylor’s firing — and that the decision was made by Reddit co-founder/board chairman Alexis Ohanian. Pao was just there to take the fall, leading many to believe that she had been placed on a glass cliff from the beginning.

Pao had been a vastly unpopular figure among Reddit’s user base, largely stemming from the fact that she (unsuccessfully) sued her former employers for gender discrimination. Which is not a thing that is going to make one popular amongst certain factions of Reddit, many of whom believe that gender discrimination is a thing women invented in order to annoy hardworking men. The assumption was that Pao had “sued” her way to the top and would continue to do so at Reddit.

Pao had also sought to curb harassment on the site by eliminating several subreddits known to “brigade” or leave their subreddit in order to harass users in other subreddits and on the internet in general. Again, not a thing that is going to make you too popular amongst certain Redditors, many of whom were especially distraught by the elimination of a subreddit dedicated to harassing and mocking fat people.

When Taylor was fired, users blamed Pao, set up several petitions to have her fired and flocked to at least one subreddit that was set up by users to mercilessly mock and harass Pao herself with racist and sexist comments and imagery. I will not link to that here, but if you want to nauseate yourself, just Google “Ellen Pao subreddit.”

When interviewed by the media on the subject of Taylor’s firing, Pao said she couldn’t comment. It turns out, there was a reason for that (other than the fact that it is not unusual for an employer to keep the terms of a dismissal confidential) — Pao wasn’t the one responsible for her being fired. Still, she resigned.

On Reddit this weekend, co-founder and Chairman of the board Alexis Ohanian stated that it was actually his decision to change the way Reddit works with AMAs:

Ellen is a class act. I have gotten to know Ellen well as we’ve worked closely together over the past eight months and I’m impressed by her hard work and integrity as she’s strived to do what’s right for both reddit the company and reddit the community. I have admired her fearlessness and calm throughout our time together and look forward to following her impact on Silicon Valley and beyond. It was my decision to change how we work with AMAs and the transition was my failure and I hope we can keep moving forward from that lesson. Today was another step. I’m really excited to be working with Steve again and appreciate what Ellen did during her time here.

Conveniently, Ohanian waited until Pao resigned to clarify this! But you know, he’s totally excited to be working with his friend again, so it’s all good.

Former Reddit CEO Yishan Wong soon offered some more insight on Ohanian’s post.

I’m glad redditors have started to piece together all of this. Here’s the only thing you’re missing:

It travels upstream, except when it comes from the CEO’s boss.

Alexis wasn’t some employee reporting to Pao, he was the Executive Chairman of the Board, i.e. Pao’s boss. He had different ideas for AMAs, he didn’t like Victoria’s role, and decided to fire her. Pao wasn’t able to do anything about it. In this case it shouldn’t have traveled upstream to her, it came from above her.

Then when the hate-train started up against Pao, Alexis should have been out front and center saying very clearly “Ellen Pao did not make this decision, I did.” Instead, he just sat back and let her take the heat. That’s a stunning lack of leadership and an incredibly shitty thing to do.

I actually asked that he be on the board when I joined; I used to respect Alexis Ohanian. After this, not quite so much.

Yes. Yes indeed. That is an incredibly shitty thing to do. It was also especially classy – perhaps a little too classy – of Pao to just sit back and take all the heat and the criticism for Taylor’s firing.

Since Pao’s departure, another Reddit employee has left the site. Chief engineer Bethanye Blount told Recode that her reason for leaving was that the site was making promises to the community that she would not actually be able to keep, specifically involving new tools for subreddit moderators and ways of addressing harassment in comments.

Blount, however, also stated that she believed Pao was set up to fail from the beginning, and pushed right off a glass cliff:

“Victoria wasn’t on a glass cliff. But it’s hard for me to see it any other way than Ellen was,” Blount said. However, she added that “I wouldn’t say my decision to leave was directly related to my gender.”

The glass cliff refers to a phenomenon in business where a woman is placed in a leadership role during a time of crisis, and is meant to be a scapegoat.

University of Houston psychology professor Kristin J. Anderson explains the phenomenon this way:

“One possible reason for putting women in positions with greater risk of failure is that women may be seen as more expendable and better scapegoats. If you believe that men are natural leaders, if a company fails under a man’s leadership, you would look for explanations for the failure other than the man’s gender. In contrast, if you believe that women don’t really belong in positions of authority, and if a company fails under a woman’s leadership, you might point to the leader’s gender as the explanation . . . A more cynical explanation is that organizational leadership might believe that putting women in high risk positions is a win-win strategy: If a woman succeeds after being placed in a difficult position, then the organization is better off; and if she fails, the woman can be blamed and the prior practice of appointing men can be justified and resurrected. At the same time, the organization can present itself as egalitarian and progressive.”

That certainly seems like what happened with Ellen Pao. The phenomenon was also cited in the cases of Marissa Mayer (Yahoo) and Meg Whitman (Hewlitt-Packard), Katie Couric at CBS, as well as Patricia Fili-Krushel and Deborah Turness at NBC.

Although many Redditors have expressed their dismay at being led to believe that Pao was the source of all their problems, it is unclear right now whether or not they will go after Ohanian just as fiercely. We’re gonna guess NO on that one.

[Reddit]
[The Daily Dot]
[Recode]
[BUST]
[Slate]
[ThinkProgress]
[WomensENews]
[Time]