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Was Ellen Pao Pushed Off The Glass Cliff At Reddit?

CREDIT: ERIC RISBERG, AP
CREDIT: ERIC RISBERG, AP

After a user revolt supposedly over the firing of a high-profile female staffer, Ellen Pao, who had served as interim CEO of Reddit, stepped down from her role Friday. In the wake of her departure, another senior female staff member, chief engineer Bethanye Blount, quit after just two months in the role. She told re/code Monday that while her decision wasn’t directly tied to what happened to Pao, she had lost confidence in the company’s direction.

But she also noted that she felt Pao was set up on a glass cliff when she was given the interim role. And it seems that may have very well been the case. Multiple studies have found evidence of the glass cliff phenomenon, where women and people of color are more likely to be given leadership roles during times of trouble rather than during good performance. While some end up engineering turnarounds, it makes their job far more difficult, and many end up scapegoated for bad performance and then pushed out.

Pao came into the leadership role at Reddit when it was already having a tough time. Investors were nervous about the unruly user base as well as several scandals, such as sharing stolen naked photos of celebrities and a proliferation of subreddit threads devoted to deeply sexist and racist topics. The person who held the CEO job before Pao found it so “stressful and draining,” in fact, that he left after being “completely worn out.”

And Pao was brought in on shaky ground. “This is technically Ellen’s job to lose,” co-founder Alexis Ohanian told the Wall Street Journal just after she came to the company in reference to whether she would become permanent CEO, although he later said on Twitter that he had full confidence in her.

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But her exit may be his fault, not hers. The user revolt that led to her resignation was purportedly over the firing of community liaison Victoria Taylor, who organized the popular “Ask Me Anything” forums with celebrities and VIPs, although the hashtag organized around it, #RedditRevolt, started a month ago after the closure of subreddits like r/shitniggerssay, r/fatpeoplehate, and r/transfags. Even so, Pao doesn’t seem to be the source of Taylor’s firing. In a Reddit post, Yishan Wong, the CEO before Pao, accused Ohanian of going over Pao’s head to fire Taylor and then allowing Pao to be publicly blamed by users.

As often happens, Pao has now been replaced by a white man, Steve Huffman, co-founder and original CEO.

In a response to a question from re/code about whether Reddit has a gender discrimination problem, Huffman said bluntly, “No,” adding that Blount’s leaving “had nothing to do with gender.” He also said, “The company is growing, and we have the opportunity to improve in many areas — including the number of women in leadership positions.” The company did not return a request for comment nor provide numbers on the gender diversity of its staff, which it has not made public.

But if the company lacks many women in leadership roles, it has plenty of company in the technology community. Among large companies that have made their diversity data public, women make up between 16 and 30 percent of leadership roles, with an average of about 23 percent. People of color don’t fare much better. Pao herself knows about this lack of diversity in Silicon Valley, having recently lost a high-profile lawsuit against her former venture capital employer for gender discrimination. But a number of other women have sued technology companies for discrimination as well.