Closing The Gap

Ellen Pao explains why she never felt imposter syndrome as Reddit CEO: 'I've seen so many horrible male CEOs'

Project Include Co-Founder & CEO Ellen Pao speaks onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco 2019 at Moscone Convention Center on October 04, 2019 in San Francisco, California.
Steve Jennings | Getty Images for TechCrunch

By the time she became the interim CEO of Reddit in 2014, Ellen Pao was well aware the odds were stacked against her as a woman in tech.

Two years prior, Pao had filed a lawsuit in San Francisco alleging her then employer, top venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, discriminated against her on the basis of gender. The jury ruled in favor of the VC firm, but the case became a referendum on the lack of gender diversity in Silicon Valley, and Pao became the face of the issue.

In a recent podcast interview on "Just Something About Her With Jennifer Palmieri," Pao shared that her experience facing this Silicon Valley boys' club emboldened her to take the top job at Reddit.

"As CEO of Reddit, I didn't have imposter syndrome," Pao told Palmieri, a political advisor and former White House communications director. "I always thought, 'I've seen so many horrible male CEOs. I've seen so many horrible male board members.'"

Pao said she was confident in her qualifications despite the pervasive Silicon Valley narrative that prizes, and invests in, college dropouts who are overwhelmingly White and male.

She said she would think, "'God, there are so many people that get chances from nothing, who haven't worked at any other companies, who haven't managed people, who haven't accomplished anything who are getting these opportunities.'

"They don't know anything, almost literally, and they're running these companies," she continued. "Why should I feel like I don't know anything? I've had a ton of experience. I've seen a bunch of things, and maybe I'm not going to be perfect, and maybe I'm going to make mistakes, but it's not going to be like some of these other mistakes I've seen."

The tech industry remains predominantly White and male

Since leaving Reddit in 2015, Pao has pushed to improve representation and equity in tech, including by working with seven other women to start Project Include, a nonprofit diversity consulting organization to help CEOs build more inclusive startups. The initiative stresses that diversity and inclusion should be treated as a high-priority business metric that measures the entire employee life cycle, from hiring to career development to promotions.

A CNBC analysis of annual disclosures found that, six years after their first diversity reports, Alphabet, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter only saw low single-digit increases in their percentage of Black employees. Amazon showed a higher increase when including warehouse and delivery workers. 

In terms of business opportunities, a Crunchbase analysis finds that Black and Latinx founders have received just 2.6% of VC funding in 2020.

And while women have made gains in the tech workforce, numbers are nowhere near parity with men. One recent report from AnitaB.org, a global organization for women technologists, says it could take 12 years before women see equal representation in tech. 

Pao's decisions to speak out against workplace discrimination took some time. She acknowledges she succeeded early in her career in part due to the model minority myth, the stereotype in which Asian Americans are used as an example of how communities of color can succeed financially and professionally despite generations of racism and oppression. Scholars say this narrative has been used to downplay the U.S. government's actions in sending Japanese American families to internment camps during WWII, as well as to stop Black social justice movements for decades, among many other consequences.

This stereotype also places limitations on Asian Americans in the workplace, Pao adds: "We get boxed into this idea of being this model minority, where Asians will do the work and they won't complain." One recent analysis of national workforce data found that Asian American white-collar professionals are the least likely group to be promoted from individual contributor roles into management.

"I think a big part of it is this assumption that they don't want to be promoted or they are not qualified as leaders — they're just good worker bees," Pao said. "I want to make sure that people understand that I'm not saying our problems are worse, but it is something that happens."

Pao credits her mom, an engineer, for instilling in her a strong sense of right from wrong, which guided her decision to speak up when she saw overly qualified women and colleagues of color weren't getting promoted at the same rate as White men in the field.

"[I] fit into the stereotype, and that was very comfortable," Pao said, "until it got to the point where I was like, 'Hey, but what am I actually a part of here? How come we've never interviewed a Black or Brown person for an investing role after seven years and 100 different candidates? What is going on there? Why is there only one woman out of these 23 candidates for this partner role?'

"And all of the sudden, you realize you should probably try to do something about that."

Employee diversity could solve some of tech's biggest problems

Greater diversity in tech overall could solve some of the industry's biggest problems, Pao said, including fighting disinformation, hate speech and harassment in online spaces.

One of Pao's priorities when she was at Reddit, for example, was to enforce a stronger anti-harassment policy and clear the site of nude pictures and revenge porn. Critics of the plan, who were mostly men, argued such measures were a form of censorship.

Today, however, Pao believes tech leaders are incentivized to not suppress hate speech because it drives engagement on social media sites, which in turn can boost profits.

However, she said majority White, male and affluent tech leaders simply don't experience the internet the same way marginalized communities do: "They're not solving problems for the person who's living in a geographic area that doesn't have good internet connectivity. They're not solving the problem for the person who can't afford a computer. They're not solving these problems for people who are from different groups that get harassed on the internet, because they don't see any of these problems. They don't experience them."

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