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Op-Ed: Ellen Pao, Your Former Nanny

Writing an op-ed piece about Ellen Pao over the past month has been an exercise in re-writing. No sooner would I get a draft complete than she would pull some new stunt, sending me back to the keyboard. Either she has decided that any publicity is good publicity, or, for a self-labeled introvert, she demonstrates an astonishingly poor ability to stay out of the limelight. Coming off of 24 months of intensive press coverage of her gender discrimination lawsuit against her former employer, she continues to garner attention although her latest actions have generated more criticism than her unsuccessful lawsuit did.

In the last few months, as interim CEO of Reddit, the online news/discussion board website, she proclaimed that Reddit would not longer engage in salary negotiations with job prospects, sparking surprised reluctant comments from would-be supporters that the policy might do more damage than good. More recently, she announced a new policy whereby conversations that were deemed to be “harassment,” amongst the thousands of Reddit news threads, would be deleted by Reddit staff. This provoked intense eyebrow-raising from Reddit users who were accustomed to a wide-open space in which to state opinions, no matter how unpopular. To throw gas on the fire, Pao then summarily fired a popular Reddit moderator for unknown reasons, perhaps because of an AMA (Ask Me Anything) session with Jesse Jackson that went badly for the politician.

I view all of these announcements as problematic and reminiscent of the philosophical question that swirled around her lawsuit and plagues college freshmen to this day: should one’s actions be judged for the stated altruistic justification or for the undisclosed selfish advantages that such actions would bring to the beneficiary? To say it more plainly, did Ellen Pao file her $16 million lawsuit against the reputable venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins in order to bring attention to the plight of women working in Silicon Valley, as she claimed before the jury, or did she and her husband—who faces criminal charges for stealing from his eponymously named hedge fund and has been assessed court judgments of nearly $150 million, including back taxes and legal fees—just need the money? The opinions of those who comment on such things seem to split along “Team Ellen” or “Anti-Team Ellen” lines (no one appears to be committed to “Team Kleiner Perkins,” except their attorneys). I’m not on any of these teams, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t care what she does, particularly when she attempts to control the flow of money—as much a stand-in for power as anything in our society—and free speech.

Although I find it amusing that Pao has become as a “symbol of the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley,” as several news articles refer to her—after all, she is an Asian-American female who held an extremely lucrative position in a widely-admired VC firm and then became the interim CEO of a well-known social media company—it didn’t take her long to act on her visibility for the alleged betterment of women. The jury verdict against Pao was barely a week old, when she announced to the Wall Street Journal that Reddit would eliminate salary negotiations from its recruiting process. Her justification was that “Men negotiate harder than women do and sometimes women get penalized when they do negotiate,” so her new policy would help “level the playing field.”

Even those journalists who had thrown themselves whole-heartedly on Team Ellen were taken aback, pointing out hesitantly that her position could be perceived as condescending to women. My opinion is that her position is condescending to humans. “We come up with an offer that we think is fair,” she said. This sounds fine in the best of all possible worlds, but, newsflash, we don’t live in a utopia. Who is this “We” that she refers to? It apparently doesn’t include the candidate. What if the candidate doesn’t agree and thinks he or she should be paid more? There could be good reasons why he or she should be. Perhaps there is information that “We” is missing. Perhaps the candidate has received a competitive offer from another company that “We” is not aware of. Will “We” really persist in ignoring that kind of important and relevant data? That would not only demonstrate poor business sense, but shows a lack of appreciation for one of the benefits of negotiation: the exchange of valuable information.

And back to our question about motivation, the policy is self-serving. What candidate will follow this rule? Only those good little boys and girls who naively trust that “We” is telling the truth. Those sound like the kind of people who were poor negotiators to begin with. So the policy does not benefit the alleged disadvantaged but improves the negotiating position of Reddit. How wonderful it would be to have convinced some percentage of your candidates that—oh well, their first offer is the best offer I’m going to get. What an advantage that would be at the negotiating table to have the party across the table truly believe that nothing is negotiable. And how unethical.

Finally, and this is most concerning, the policy implies that all the negotiating power lies with the hiring company and none with the candidate. That is astonishing and quite insulting to a qualified candidate. In this age when tech companies are struggling to recruit talented employees, is “We” really ready to pass on those who ask for a little more cash, a bit more vacation, a bigger cubicle, or more flexible hours. Of course not. To believe so would be to demonstrate a lack of understanding about the current economics of hiring in Silicon Valley. So candidates will negotiate, and “We” may pretend that “We” won’t, but “We” certainly will, rendering “We”’s own publicized position a lie.

Here’s the deal: business is negotiation. Economic give-and-take is inherent to all exchanges involving labor, product, rights, or services, the stock and trade of business transactions, if not all exchanges. Pao said, “We [there’s that “We” again] aren’t going to reward people who are better negotiators with more compensation.” I would argue, “We” should. Employees who know how to negotiate have a marketable skill that “We” would do well to bring on board. They make better employees because they negotiate better deals for their companies whether it’s better acquisition terms, thinking through the details of a co-development agreement, or finding a discount lodging rate for our sales conference. If “We”’s employees don’t know how to negotiate, “We” should teach them. As to whether women are inherently poor negotiators, that’s baloney. Women can be extremely talented negotiators, as demonstrated by the likes of sports agent Molly Fletcher, EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, Liberian President Elizabeth Johnson Sirleaf, along with the innumerable skilled mediators, diplomats, and go-betweens among my professional colleagues, as well as—I imagine— among yours.

Pao’s position demonstrates a lack of understanding about the distribution of power between a hiring company and a prospective candidate. And this brings us to the even more alarming issue about power: when deciding who is entitled to free speech and who is not, who gets to decide? Pao returned to the royal “We” when she announced that Reddit would begin deleting offensive comment threads. Reddit’s press release announcing its decision to delete certain conversation threads declares, “… We [emphasis mine] will ban subreddits that allow their communities to use the subreddit as a platform to harass individuals when moderators don’t take action. We’re [emphasis mine] banning behavior, not ideas.”

Apparently, Reddit management has never heard the adage, “Actions speak louder than words.” An argument about banning behavior and pretending it’s not about ideas is instantly suspect. The press release goes on to say that only one of the five subreddits that were banned had over 5000 users, as though that were relevant and excused the censorship—it’s okay, we only censored a few people. That pronouncement seemed most disingenuous when it came out that one subreddit /r/FatPeopleHate, a thread dedicated to complaining about fat people, had 150,000 subscribers.

Ironically, the public information activist Aaron Schwartz was an original partner of Reddit. He wrote, “When you say something particularly controversial on the Web, you’ll get all sorts of people coming at you with arguments. Considering those arguments and seeing if they’re right or, if they’re wrong, why they’re wrong, has been very valuable in clarifying my beliefs (and similarly, I hope my challenges have helped other people clarify their beliefs).” It sounds a bit like the benefits of negotiation, doesn’t it? Aaron believed that discussion of controversial topics was beneficial and important to protect. People did come at him: after he downloaded public academic documents from a private commercial website, he was over-zealously hounded and harassed by federal prosecutors, driving him to suicide at the age of 26. How unfortunate that his legacy has fallen into the hands of someone who doesn’t understand the importance of free speech.

Reddit users have reacted with typical internet wit, irreverence, and crudity. Threads referring to “Chairman Pao” immediately cropped up and were also squashed. Reminiscing about the demise of Digg, a former news-aggregator that folded after a crackdown on piracy, users predicted, “Reddit will go out, not with a bang, but with a Pao.” Ironically, a Reddit co-founder had written a snarky letter to Digg management predicting that users would “flee the site because of corporate meddling.” Now it was Reddit’s turn, and thousands of users immediately moved to Voat, a competing although much smaller site, swamping its server. And predictably, hundreds of FatPeopleHate threads were newly created. A Redditor friend said that on the day the censorship began, his main page was completely filled with new FatPeopleHate threads.

Given the impossibility of the task she has set herself, inconsistencies are rampant. /r/FatPeopleHate and its children have been deleted, but threads like /r/Coonville, a thread dedicated to nasty criticism of black people, or /r/CuteFemaleCorpses (I presume needs no explanation) persist. Reddit management can argue that “We” can distinguish between harassment and provocative discourse, but it’s going to be very difficult to explain, particularly if only “We” gets to decide.

Back to our initial question regarding motivation, why would Reddit do this? Is management genuinely concerned about a few individuals being mocked on its site, or is there a larger issue in play? Some Redditors have suggested that allowing politically incorrect content makes the site unappealing to some advertisers, compromising Reddit’s ability to become commercially viable. It’s an appropriately cynical suggestion, but I fear that the real reason is worse, that Ellen and Co. are arrogant enough to believe that they are qualified to determine what can be said and what can’t. It’s a position consistent with her lawsuit in which she tried to extract money from a company for what she perceived to be her colleagues’ incorrect behavior, and it’s consistent with her position that “We” can determine what an appropriate salary is for a candidate with no input from the candidate. It is highly dangerous when “We,” no matter how well-meaning, grab power for We-selves, with no validation from anyone else, and stand in judgment of others. “We” is likely to discover that attempting to maintain non-negotiable positions is a short-lived pretense and “We” is headed for a fall.

Which is what happened. Two weeks ago, Pao fired a popular Reddit moderator for reasons which are still to be disclosed. The moderator, Victoria Taylor, had hosted a AmA (Ask Me Anything) session with Jesse Jackson the day before. To say the session went poorly would be an understatement. Jackson gave incoherent evasive answers unrelated to the posted questions and appeared to disintegrate as the session progressed, writing at one point, “You know, [African-Americans] are very good at athletics.” Could he have complained to Reddit management after the fact and blamed Taylor for not censoring the questions and allowing him to look bad? Was Pao distressed that a Silicon Valley hero was embarrassed on her site? Maybe.

In any case, thread moderators were furious about Taylor’s firing and organized a protest blackout whereby many significant threads were turned to private and were unavailable to users over the weekend. Others established a change.org petition calling for Pao’s resignation, citing fears that she will “run Reddit into the ground.” By July 9th, the petition had been signed by over 210,000 people. On July 10th, Reddit announced Pao’s resignation and replaced her with Reddit’s original CEO, Steve Huffman. News stories ran that she was driven out by a torrent of misogynist abuse, and Team Ellen writers blogged that she had been set up as interim CEO with the cards stacked against her. One headline read: “It’s Silicon Valley 2, Pao 0.”

Pao maintained that she resigned because she and the company’s board held differing views about Reddit’s growth potential. Although she said it had been “a hard week,” she thanked the Redditors in a long resignation letter. “I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly on Reddit,” she wrote. “The good has been off-the-wall inspiring [sic], and the ugly made me doubt humanity.” To her detractors, she wrote, “I just want to remind everyone that I am just another human; I have a family, and I have feelings. Everyone attacked on Reddit is just another person like you and me.” With regards to her future plans, she said she planned to get a lot of sleep.

Sweet dreams, Ellen. I wish they hadn’t come at such great personal expense to you, but the discussions you raised are valuable. We don’t agree, but we have all learned a lot. Such is the benefit of unfettered human exchange.

Copyright © 2015 Jennifer K. Crittenden

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