Ellen Pao: Meritocracy in tech is a myth

The “biggest myth” about working in the tech industry is that it’s based on a meritocracy.

So says Ellen Pao, the former Reddit CEO and venture capitalist, who is urging companies to take another look at how inclusive their workplaces really are as communities around the world grapple with a rise in anti-Asian hate.

Pao, who now leads the nonprofit Project Include, reflected on her decades-long career in a recent interview with CNN Business, saying that she learned a lot of “painful” lessons along the way and didn’t always feel respected as an Asian American woman, even in her stint as chief of one of the world’s top social networks.

“I think the biggest myth about tech and also the way I was raised, and a lot of Asians are raised, is that the workplace is a meritocracy. And if you work hard and you don’t complain and you do a good job, that you’ll be rewarded and that you will be treated fairly,” Pao said.

“[But] actually, you learn at a certain point that that’s actually not the case. And for many people, it’s never the case.”

Unease in the workplace

Pao, a Chinese-American tech investor, fought a landmark gender discrimination lawsuit against her former employer, venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, in 2015. Although she ultimately lost in court, the case rocked Silicon Valley and was widely credited with casting a light on long-running issues of sexism in the tech industry.

But according to Pao, the obstacles didn’t end there.

Even during her short time at Reddit — where Pao served as interim CEO from 2014 to 2015 — she said she didn’t always feel welcome on the job. Asked for specifics, she recalled being excluded from board discussions and said she had a colleague refuse to report to her. She also said she later swapped stories with other Asian CEOs, who felt “pushed out” of board activities.

“There are definitely times when I did not feel included, where I wasn’t part of board interactions, where there were conversations that went on that I wasn’t part of, even as CEO,” she said. “There were definitely some people that I felt were uncomfortable working for me, not because of my accomplishments, but perhaps because I was Asian … or because I’m a woman.”

Some of the board discussions “happened toward the end of my time at Reddit,” she added.

Pao stepped down after controversy erupted over the firing of a popular Reddit employee who had served as a liaison between the site and its moderators. After the incident, many angry users took to the internet — and Reddit itself — to demand Pao’s departure. An online petition calling for her resignation also picked up over 200,000 signatures at the time.

“At the end, I was asked to resign,” said Pao. “So I imagine those were the conversations that were happening. But, you know, there are people that I was working with day to day where I would have assumed that they would have let me know, and given me a heads-up that these conversations were happening.”

The former chief executive also said that “there was somebody who would not report to me — insisting on reporting to the board — and that, as CEO, that didn’t feel great.”

“There were so many examples, it’s hard to list all of them,” she said. “It’s hard to know what part of it is race-based and what part of it is gender-based.”

Sam Altman, the board member at Reddit who announced Pao’s departure in 2015, said at the time that the company was “thankful for Ellen’s many contributions to Reddit and the technology industry generally.” Altman also told CNN at the time that Pao “did an incredible job,” despite stepping “into a really messy situation.”

Reddit did not respond to a request for additional comment on Monday.

Both Pao and Altman, though, have acknowledged the vitriol directed toward Pao on Reddit, an influential forum for free speech and expression that also developed a darker reputation for enabling what many saw as a hotbed of misogyny and racism.

Pao described some of the backlash toward her at the time as graphic threats, “racist memes” and “Photoshopped images,” which took aim at her ethnicity or gender.

Altman alluded to those posts after her resignation, writing: “It was sickening to see some of the things redditors wrote about Ellen.”

“Disagreements are fine. Death threats are not,” he wrote. “People are still people even if there is internet between you.”

According to Pao, her story is not uncommon. She cited a recent anecdote from a friend, an Asian CEO of a successful startup, who “definitely felt some of the same things I felt — being excluded from really being part of the board … even though he had participated in this success and growth.”

“It’s a story that you hear from multiple Asian CEOs and it’s one that’s not great,” she said.

A worsening problem

Such experiences are at least one reason why the recent spate of attacks on Asians aren’t a total surprise, according to Pao.

Data shows the problem of discrimination is worsening, too. According to research from Project Include, Pao’s advocacy group that focuses on diversity in tech, 27% of Asian Americans or Asians across dozens of industries have experienced more racial hostility at work since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

“There’s a part of me where logically it’s just the extension of the experiences I’ve had in the past,” said Pao.

“[But] I’m convinced that change is going to happen, because when I look at Gen Z and millennial workers, they are looking for something very different,” she said. “What [also] gives me hope and encouragement is seeing Asians and Asian Americans speak up for other communities.”

As workers at major companies like Google continue to mobilize and speak up, businesses also have the responsibility to reflect on the current tensions and improve situations for workers, said Pao.

“I know from personal experience there are so many pressures that are pushing you to keep it quiet, to not rock the boat, to swallow your bitterness, to chi ku in the Asian culture,” she said, referring to the popular Chinese saying that urges one to not complain about personal struggles.

“To see so many people speaking up at great personal cost, at professional cost, to lose a well-paying, stable job, because they see inequities and because they want to change the industry is very inspiring. It gives me hope that people will force change and that these companies can’t continue the way they have been without changing.”

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