Ellen Pao and the Glass Cliff

Reddit has become known as a discussion forum, celebrity interview platform and hotbed for hateful commentary. (Photo by Eva Blue)

Ellen Pao, interim-CEO at Reddit, was fired last week.

I wish I could say it was a surprise, but the woman’s been underwater from the jump, beginning as technology journalist Sarah Lacy told CNN, with being named “interim-CEO.” It’s like informally calling someone a placeholder. Good luck establishing your authority from that point — when authority is an issue — as a female in the tech industry.

Then, we can’t forget it’s not uncommon for a company with diversity or business — or both — issues to install a woman at the top of the house, and then run her out on rails when she fails to turn things around at the speed of light. That’s where the term glass cliffcomes from. Pao, of course, had other strikes against her before she even stepped up to the plate. If her name sounds familiar, you may recall she lost a highly publicized gender discrimination casein Silicon Valley back in March.

Brigid Schulte presents on the importance of play and pause. (Photo by Will Byington Photography)
Ellen Pao, former Reddit CEO

But Reddit, the so-called man cave of the Internet, is not a company known for its gender friendliness, and it should have had Pao’s back. If it saw fit to appoint her to a leadership role, the company should have supported her and her efforts to do her job. Period. Obviously public sentiment plays a role in a company’s leadership. It speaks to trust, integrity, brand ownership, etc., but trolls should not dictate who is allowed to run an organization.

The company said it wanted to police its forums, led by a bevy of 18- to 29-year old males fond of porn, racism, stolen celebrity nudes and other charming bottom-feeder internet food. Pao did that. Not completely because it’s a huge, complicated task — try fitting the entire Internet through a hole the size of a lemon — but she’d made a good start. Yet when the going got tough, when the site’s trolls upped the ante on their sexist, cruel, misogynistic behavior to the nth degree, with Pao as a big neon bullseye, the board caved — and appointed a man, Reddit co-founder Steve Huffman, in her place.

I don’t know if Pao was up to the task. It almost doesn’t matter at this point. Reddit had a real opportunity to support not only women in leadership but also to take a definitive stance against Internet abuse, and it blew it. We’re talking completely sat down on the job, in the corner, with its thumb in its mouth and a blanket clutched in its fist. It’s like waving a white flag at the horrid, small-minded little males who’ve made Reddit such a cesspool and saying, “You win.” And it sends a big ole thumbs up to other trolls who spread their comment-based cruelty elsewhere on the Internet.

Pao was likely under a tremendous amount of stress, and I know how hard it is to perform at a high level under horrible conditions. But when charged with the formidable task of changing such a strong, pervasively negative culture/community and simultaneously implement a potentially impossible business model — with inadequate support — she was doomed to fail from the beginning.

Businesses, people, industries — they have to think about what they really want and be willing to stick it out when things get rough. Stand for something good. It’s not just about throwing the necessary money at the problem — although that’s important; you need resources to get things down — supporting those who are at the front lines is also vital. If they don’t, people like Ellen Pao will continue to be pushed off of glass cliffs while the trolls, the happy little horrors, continue to dance under bridges and elsewhere in the shadows.