In 2015, Ellen Pao, co-founder of Project Include and the former CEO of Reddit, sued her former employer, a venture capital firm named Kleiner Perkins, for discriminating against her on the basis of her gender. During the process, she experienced incredibly negative personal attacks on her character, her spouse, and her family life. Her book, Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change, gives us a deep dive into her side of the story. Pao exposes the challenges faced by women — particularly women of color — in Silicon Valley.
I was struck by Pao’s multiple interests and fields of expertise, from her early interest in journalism and the art of tracking down facts, to her love for computer science and programming, to “the law, the logic of which seemed a little like coding to [Pao]” (25). In fact, Pao has three degrees: a bachelor’s in Electrical Engineering from Princeton, a J.D. from Harvard Law School, and an MBA from Harvard Business School.
Despite her impressive credentials, though, Pao felt belittled and excluded throughout her varied career. While working at a law firm, she was asked to do tasks below her station, like fetch platters of cookies for her male peers. She additionally described her Black female colleagues at the firm as being mistaken for paralegals or administrative assistants or prevented from using the standard car service available to lawyers from the firm’s security team (30).
Later on, at Kleiner Perkins, where Pao became a junior investing partner, she experienced exclusion from meetings for her own ventures, was forced into uncomfortable conversations about porn, got passed over for promotions while male colleagues with similar qualifications moved on up, and — when a brief workplace romance went sour — discovered she was being professionally sabotaged by her ex.
As the lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins raged on, Pao took on an interim CEO role at a struggling Reddit. During her tenure there, she hired a diverse team, banned hard alcohol from company gatherings, poured her energy into leading her team in removing revenge porn and child porn from the website, and implemented a sitewide anti-harassment policy. However, dismissing her victories in improving Reddit culture, the board declared that Pao had not met expectations, leading to her resignation.
Describing Reddit‘s “glass cliff”, Pao explains it as a “a situation, common in business, when a woman breaks through the glass ceiling and is finally handed a position of power…exactly when a company is about to implode. The company fails. The woman is blamed and sometimes is set up as the scapegoat from the start. The takeaway: See? This is why women can’t have nice things” (167).
Later on, Pao used her experiences to help bring together a strong group of women — including Erica Joy Baker, Tracy Chou, Laura Gomez, and Brianna Wu — to found Project Include, a non-profit that aims to increase diversity and inclusion in the tech industry.
I found Pao’s book eye-opening and inspiring and highly recommend it.