Ellen Pao on Reaction to Kleiner Case, Workplace Sexism and Running Reddit — Q&A

Ellen Pao, interim CEO of Reddit, speaks with The Wall Street Journal during an interview at the Reddit offices in San Francisco on Thursday.
Laura Morton for The Wall Street Journal

On Thursday, Ellen Pao sat down with The Wall Street Journal in her first interview since she lost her legal battle against venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Speaking from the San Francisco office of social-media site Reddit, where she is interim chief executive, Pao reflected on Silicon Valley’s reaction to her sex-discrimination case that for four weeks revealed embarrassing personal details and drew international media attention. Pao, 45 years old, says that having her personal and work life scrutinized was worth it because it appeared to have started an industrywide conversation about gender bias in tech, and more broadly in business.

At the advice of her lawyers, Pao declined to talk about the trial proceedings. She also declined

discuss her husband, Alphonse “Buddy” Fletcher, a controversial hedge-fund manager.

Below is an excerpt from the interview, edited for clarity. (Read the companion story in the Journal here.)

WSJ: What did it feel like to have your life opened up so publicly?
Pao: It was unexpected for me in many ways, and it’s not my personality to be out there, and I’m also by nature a very private person. So for me it was a little bit scary. At the end of the day I look at it, and I look at the conversations, and I’m glad I did it. But it was hard.

WSJ: Were there moments when it felt surreal, when you just felt turned inside out?
Pao: There were a lot of positive moments when it felt surreal. Women were kind of taking me aside and telling me their story. I found it very emotional, and I felt a very strong connection to them. And they were strangers off the street or in an elevator, or on a message on LinkedIn. Our shared experiences created a very tight bond. There were people who shared stories that they hadn’t told other people, that they bottled up for many years. It was very inspiring to hear people share their stories and to feel this bond.

WSJ: Did that keep you from feeling too isolated?
Pao: Yeah, I think it was a very mutual experience, because for them and for me there was a connection that we were in this together, that we had the shared experience.

WSJ: How many people did you hear from over the course of the trial?
Pao: It grew over time over the three years. Starting out it would be one person a week and then a few people a day, and towards the end people would stop me on the street. It was something that resonated with a lot of people in a lot of industries across genders and across all sorts of boundaries.

It’s moved into a broader discussion about people who are struggling to be treated fairly in their jobs, and not just in the U.S. I’ve also heard from people in Bangladesh, from Singapore, from China, from Taiwan, from Korea, from Tanzania. It’s something that’s global. I think it’s resonated with a lot of people, and it’s become a much bigger thing.

WSJ: In some people’s eyes, you became a point-person for gender bias in tech and American business. Was that a heavy burden?
Pao: For me it was inspiring. To hear these women share their stories and hear men share stories of their wives, their mothers, their sisters, and also their own experiences. It was inspiring to hear that my story resonated and it was actually not just my story but a lot of people’s stories.

“Some people can’t relate to me, and that’s okay.”

WSJ: Other people have said you’re not the right point-person for this issue. What’s your reaction to that?
Pao: I think everybody has their own perspective, and some people can’t relate to me, and that’s okay. I think there’s a set of people who are seeing my story as being part of a much bigger story, and being part of their experiences. For me that’s very rewarding. It’s not going to be something for everybody, and that’s fine.

WSJ: Did you get any hostility? Did you get hate mail?
Pao: I may have gotten some, but overwhelmingly most of the messages I got were supportive, and the ones that were substantive were all supportive.

WSJ: What’s the main thing you learned from your experiences?
Pao: It’s hard for people to understand other people, but it’s easy if you have shared experiences, and that’s where a lot of these complexities of discrimination come from.

WSJ: So, empathy?
Pao: Yeah.

WSJ: Do you think that gender bias and racial issues are a matter of common sense, that policies can be laid out matter-of-factly?
Pao: I wish it were, but it doesn’t seem like it is because if you look at the statistics out there, if you look at studies that are out there, people still aren’t internalizing that. I think it’s often a matter of changing people’s perspectives. That isn’t always easy to do, and that’s not not always something you can use common sense to change.

WSJ: The subtlety of workplace sexism often comes up in cases like these — that people aren’t always aware they may be crossing a line.
Pao: I think it’s an issue of education and making people aware of it. Women who felt like they were uncomfortable before, that there was something that just wasn’t right, are hopefully now more comfortable pointing it out. They’re now able to point to discussions and research about it.

I’m definitely seeing a lot of conversations on Twitter, in the press, in different areas. I think it’s something that men are starting to notice, too. A man reached out to me and said, “Thank you for highlighting this issue. I’m seeing it now, and I never saw it before.” So people are now aware and hopefully they’re saying, “How do we make sure this isn’t happening in our environment, or how do I make sure that I’m not doing it?”

Ellen Pao speaks to the media after losing her high-profile gender discrimination lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins on March 27.

I think the fact that a lot of this is subtle, that people have different views on where the line is, makes it a very worthwhile discussion. Until you draw that line at your company, people are going to give it a wide boundary. Then you end up with a lot of problems, because your expectations aren’t the same, or you’re not sure if it’s really a problem. I think we have moved through a lot of the really blatant issues that are clear-cut and now we’re getting to harder issues. When you look at the overall experience of women in the workplace, they are not succeeding, and that seems pretty clear-cut to me. So how do we fix that problem?

WSJ: I’ve talked to men who say when issues of gender come up at work, they’re better off just saying nothing. Is that a mistake?
Pao: I think it’s an opportunity to learn. I think avoiding those conversations means you’re not learning. Hoping they go away is not realistic. You need to work through these issues and you can’t just hide from them, because they are here and they’re not going to go away.

I do think men need to be part of the conversation. And I think it has to be a conversation where men can learn from it, and part of that is by being part of it and engaging in it. You see men who will ask their wives, or they’ll ask their sisters or they’ll ask their co-workers who they know well. I think it starts out with those relationships where you feel comfortable, and it moves out from there as you become more aware about these issues.

“You have this needle that you have to thread, and sometimes it feels like there’s no hole in the needle.”

WSJ: Why do you think these conversations are difficult?
Pao: People aren’t sure what the right answer is. So there’s not a clear line of discussion. It is emotional. There are a lot of people who don’t have those experiences, or don’t know people who have had those experiences. There can be some heated debate.

WSJ: Some women say they’re unfairly treated as being either too aggressive or too timid. What is your thought on that?
Pao: Women get criticized on both ends, and you have this needle that you have to thread, and sometimes it feels like there’s no hole in the needle. From what I’ve heard from women, they do feel like there’s no way to win. They can’t be aggressive and get those opportunities without being treated like they’ve done something wrong.

WSJ: Do you think the environment has changed in Silicon Valley over the past decade with regards to gender bias?
Pao: I struggle with that a little bit. I think in the last five or 10 years there’s been more people coming into tech to make money fast than before. And that mentality has changed how a set of people behave. There’s still a corps of people who are really interested in technology and really interested in making people’s lives better, but there’s also this other pressure of making money fast, and that’s changed the culture of Silicon Valley.

WSJ: The notion in Silicon Valley that we’re here to disrupt things, and we’re going to tear up the rule book — is there a boundary that says, “That’s fine until you’re influencing this person in this way”?
Pao: Yeah, I think there’s a baseline of human decency and respect that is core to all of your behavior. You can break the rules, but you’ve got to be respectful, and you’ve got to treat people well, and with humanity.

WSJ: Especially at a smaller company where people work very closely and relationships can kind of fray? Is that an area for small companies to get guidance?
Pao: I think it helps. It can’t hurt for people to understand where the boundaries are, what’s appropriate behavior what’s not appropriate behavior, and what your company values are. If your values are that we want a respectful and safe environment for everyone, then they’re going to behave differently than in an environment where there are no rules, and things happen, and all behavior is welcome.

WSJ: You’re in a different position now. You’re the boss at Reddit. How has your perspective changed?
Pao: I think when you start out in your career, you think that everything is fair, and you are getting equal opportunities. And as you move up higher in the ranks, you realize that actually there are fewer positions and it’s more competitive and it’s harder to get those opportunities. And then you reach a point where you realize, hey, these opportunities are not equal, and I think that’s been the case for many women.

WSJ: Are you looking at making changes at Reddit with regards to human resources?
Pao: It is an interesting perspective, because it’s an opportunity for me to try to put in things that I think are going to create this equal opportunity environment for everyone. We are a small company, and the CEO before me brought in HR when we had, I think, 25 or 30 employees, so we weren’t required by law. So we’ve always had a culture of HR at Reddit.

“We ask [Reddit job candidates] what they think about diversity, and we did weed people out because of that.”

As we grow, we’re thinking about how we can maintain this environment of equal opportunity. We brought in Freada Kapor Klein to talk to us about the work she’s doing at the Level Playing Field Institute. And we are trying to think about how diversity can be part of everything we do.

Men negotiate harder than women do and sometimes women get penalized when they do negotiate. So as part of our recruiting process we don’t negotiate with candidates. We come up with an offer that we think is fair. If you want more equity, we’ll let you swap a little bit of your cash salary for equity, but we aren’t going to reward people who are better negotiators with more compensation. We ask people what they think about diversity, and we did weed people out because of that.

WSJ: Reddit’s online community is defiant. There has been some ugly back-and-forth on the site, including misogyny. How are you going to feel if you have to be a cop in your position as someone who has spoken out about gender bias in Silicon Valley?
Pao: We have a set of values on Reddit that are independent from me. It’s the company’s values that we’ve articulated as a team over the past few months to make them very clear. One of the values is privacy. Another of the values is free speech, or an open platform for speech. Another one is the safety of our users, and people off the platform. And a big part of my job is to uphold those values independent of what I do outside of Reddit.

Since I’ve joined we’ve hired more people in community management. We’ve brought Jessica Moreno from from RedditGifts to an elevated role where she is managing the community and customer support for all of Reddit. And we’ve changed the rules for what content is allowed on the site in a way that is consistent with how we’ve always been running the site but now is more explicit. And we’re doing things to maintain people’s privacy a little bit more over situations where you might think that free-speech would trump otherwise.

WSJ: Reddit has such viral power. Is that a difficult thing to monetize?
Pao: There is the balancing act where we to try to be very respectful of the community, because they are the ones who are creating the content, building the relationships, connecting with other people, and we want to be very respectful of how we treat them. But there is also the desire to help people find the products they’re interested in, to connect them with advertisers and help them communicate with advertisers the same way they communicate with other people on Reddit. So there is a balancing act, that we think we’re doing it successfully, of creating a great user experience while monetizing.

WSJ: Do you think there is a connection between online ugliness and workplace behavior? I talked to some of the women who were involved in Gamergate, and they said there are some of the same issues. Do you think there’s a connection as far as culture?
Pao: That’s good question. The gaming industry is a tough one. And I think those worlds collide directly. I think it’s less so when you look at medicine, or when you look at law, when you look at some of these more off-line industries. But there is a pervasiveness in the attitude and culture where it’s okay to say these things, and maybe it’s okay to do certain things. It’s hard to know. I don’t know, but I would imagine that there is a connection when saying some of these really mysogynistic things becomes pervasive in the culture, it’s going to affect how you think about women or how you think about minorities.

WSJ: You have a daughter. What would you tell a young woman who is coming into tech if you knew she was going to face some of the issues that you have?
Pao: I would tell her to have confidence in herself, to know that what she’s doing is important, and to always remember not to let other people change her view of herself.

WSJ: Where do you think you’ll be in 10 years?
Pao: I’ve never had a 10-year plan. You can see from the things I’ve done that it’s never been the direct point-to-point. I feel lucky to be at Reddit, and I hope the company continues to be really successful.

WSJ: Do you want to be the CEO long-term?
Pao: Yes, I do.

WSJ: Do you think you’ll ever do an AMA (Ask Me Anything feature on Reddit)?
Pao: Oh, I probably will, and I should at some point.

WSJ: Will it really be an AMA?
Pao: You don’t always have to answer. You can ask anything, but I don’t always have to answer.