Why does the internet hate Ellen Pao?

IF YOU’VE been anywhere near a computer in the past week, you will have heard the name Ellen Pao.

One of the most controversial figures on the internet, the head of the hugely popular website Reddit was forced from her job as CEO on Friday, after a petition calling for her resignation reached more than 200,000 signatures.

The move has polarised opinion, with supporters claiming Pao was the victim of sexism and racism for standing up to the male-dominated tech culture of Silicon Valley and the “toxic” culture of internet trolls.

But her detractors, among them many who resorted to highly offensive personal attacks and threats, say she was a professional victim and clueless corporate type who used her role to clamp down on “free speech” after she introduced strict new anti-harassment policies for the site.

But who is Ellen Pao, and why all the hate?

‘DEATH BY 1000 CUTS

A Harvard-educated lawyer and the daughter of Chinese immigrant parents, Pao took over from Yishan Wong as Reddit’s interim CEO in November, after she was sacked by her former employer, San Francisco venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in 2012.

Pao first made headlines after filing a sexual discrimination lawsuit against the firm, claiming she had been passed over for promotion as a woman, citing Silicon Valley’s male-dominated culture.

Pao claimed Kleiner Perkins had retaliated against her for complaining, eventually sacking her for speaking up.

Pao sought $US16 million in damages but she lost the case earlier this year and was instead ordered to pay $US276,000 in legal costs.

“If I’ve helped to level the playing field for women and minorities in venture capital, then the battle was worth it,” a defiant Pao, who also has an engineering degree, told reporters after her court defeat, describing bias against women in the tech sector as like “death by 1000 cuts.”

“You’ve got people who are used to not following rules. And they don’t know where the boundaries for behaviour are.

“The woman is assumed to be the assistant or the junior person,” she told Yahoo News.

“You could have an electrical engineering degree but people assume that you’re not technical and will talk to the guy who might not have that degree but they assume he’s going to be more technical.”

Pao, centre, leaves court in February after losing her sex discrimination lawsuit.

Pao, centre, leaves court in February after losing her sex discrimination lawsuit. Source: AP

Ironically, and to the frustration of her critics, many of Pao’s supporters seized on the court decision as just another example of sexism.

“This case sends a powerful signal to Silicon Valley in general and the venture capital industry in particular,” Stanford University law professor Deborah Rhode told The New York Times. “Defendants who win in court sometimes lose in the world outside it.”

Pao first began to ruffle feathers on Reddit earlier this year when users claimed stories critical of her husband, former hedge fund manager Alphonse ‘Buddy’ Fletcher, were secretly being deleted from the site.

Fletcher had been embroiled in his own legal troubles over the collapse of his company, Fletcher Asset Management, described by the bankruptcy trustee as a “Ponzi scheme”. Fletcher was accused of transferring millions to himself and to friends.

In June last year, three years after the company went under, a judge ordered Fletcher to repay $US50 million to investors, among them pension funds for firefighters and police.

In the space of a fortnight, Pao and Fletcher, once considered an Ivy League power couple, have both found themselves unemployed.

Cynical Reddit users, as well as Kleiner Perkins’ lawyers, have claimed Pao’s sex discrimination lawsuit was partly motivated by her husband’s financial troubles.

Things became more heated still after a number of controversial user-run subsections of the site, known as subreddits, were shut down by Pao for breaching strict new anti-harassment policies introduced to make Reddit a friendlier — and more marketable — destination for its 164 million users.

This caused a massive rift in the community, opening up a fault line between the free-speech advocates and those in favour of banning objectionable content. One banned subreddit, r/FatPeopleHate, was devoted to abusing and shaming fat people.

REDDIT UGLINESS ‘MADE ME DOUBT HUMANITY’

In a statement posted to Reddit after stepping down, Pao urged Redditors to “remember the human” behind the keyboard.

“In my eight months as Reddit’s CEO, I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly on Reddit,” she wrote. “The good has been off-the-wall inspiring, and the ugly made me doubt humanity.

“I just want to remind everyone that I am just another human; I have a family, and I have feelings. Everyone attacked on Reddit is just another person like you and me.”

Already on the nose with Reddit users, the final straw for Pao was the unexplained sacking of Reddit staffer Victoria Taylor, who coordinated the site’s hugely popular ‘Ask Me Anything’ sessions with high-profile celebrities.

In protest, volunteer moderators who run many of the site’s biggest subreddits shut down large parts of the site. Under mounting pressure, Pao resigned from her reported $235,000-a-year post, with Reddit co-founder Steve Huffan returning to replace her.

Another Reddit co-founder and executive, Alexis Ohanian, later admitted responsibility for sacking Taylor, but it was too late for Pao.

On Monday, just days after Pao quit, Reddit’s chief engineer, Bethanye Blount, also threw in the towel after only two months in the role.

Blount told technology website Re/code she believed Pao’s exit was the result of a form of gender discrimination known as the “glass cliff”, where women are set up for failure by being put in leadership roles during a crisis.

The Glass Cliff theory was first proposed in 2005 in a paper published in the British Journal of Management, which found that women more likely to be promoted to “precarious” leadership positions.

That view has been fuelled by former CEO Wong, who — perhaps facetiously — accused Ohanian of letting Pao take the fall over the crisis. After Taylor’s sacking and the blackout of portions of the site began, Ohanian infamously joked, “Popcorn tastes good.

“Some of the worst trolls on the internet are celebrating victory, as embattled interim CEO of Reddit Ellen Pao stepped down yesterday after what can charitably be described as a month or so of pure hell,” The Daily Beast wrote, under the headline Reddit’s Terrorists Have Won.

Feminist website Feministing described it as “terrible news for anyone interested in making the internet less toxic”, arguing Pao was scapegoated over her strict anti-harassment policies and a failed gender discrimination lawsuit.

‘DISAGREEMENTS ARE FINE. DEATH THREATS ARE NOT’

A statement posted on Reddit by Reddit board member Sam Altman Friday said Pao had resigned from Reddit by mutual agreement and would continue to advise the board for the rest of 2015.

Altman acknowledged that Reddit moderators should have better tools and communication from the company, but took some users to task for the nature of their comments about Pao.

He said Reddit accepts disagreements, but said the site must exercise compassion if it wants to be a great community and said some of the things Reddit users wrote about Pao were “sickening”.

Some of the personal attacks on Pao included images depicting her as Hitler, Mao Tse-tung or “Chairman Pao”, and of her face Photoshopped onto pornographic images.

“Disagreements are fine. Death threats are not, are not covered under free speech, and will continue to get offending users banned,” Altman wrote.

In an email, Pao said she resigned because Reddit’s board was asking for faster user growth than she could deliver while holding on to the site’s core values. She defended Reddit’s policy changes, saying that despite criticism, the new rules are making the community stronger.

“We’ve taken bold and often controversial stances, but always with the greater good of the community in mind,” she said. “We tackled the thorny issues of harassment on the site, banning harassing behaviour without censoring ideas. Though we came under fire on many fronts, we did not waver, working 24/7 to try to keep the site harassment-free.”