Sunday, July 12, 2015

Is Ellen Pao Reddit's "Gone Girl"?

In the film "Gone Girl," a psychopathic woman wields female victimhood against her cheating husband like a gun. 

It's a scary movie for men and women alike. We watched the show on Saturday night as a free feature pick on Xfinity. Neither of us fell asleep till the tiny hours of the morning.
Judging from a random selection of simultaneous Tweets, we were not the only sleepless ones. 
At the same time, in real life, Ben Affleck - the popular star of the movie, who is rumored to be a philanderer in real life - is getting a divorce from his wife, the also popular star Jennifer Garner.
It is hard not to favor Jennifer, because of her good-girl and good-mom persona. But that is precisely the point of the movie: The brands we see on TV are often grossly manufactured. 
Meanwhile, Ellen Pao's departure from Reddit is a top news story this weekend, as has been her ongoing litigation against San Francisco venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Her prominence in two stories making headline news has made her a lightning rod for those on both side of the sexism debate.
Some see her as a "fighter of sexism," a victim of a kind of "terrorism." Others see her as an "incompetent feminist CEO," a professional victim, much like the female lead in "Gone Girl," out to milk her gender status for money.
Pao ascended to the national spotlight for her lawsuit against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers as well as due to her controversial reign as Reddit's CEO. She stepped down after a massive protest against her firing of a popular employee.
In the KP lawsuit, the jury considered whether Kleiner Perkins had discriminated or retaliated against Pao based on gender. Here's the dispute in brief:
  • Pao argued her performance was excellent, based on the content of her business decisions and recommendations. Kleiner Perkins says it wasn't good enough, based on the process of her business behavior, e.g. poor relationship skills, evidenced by continuous clashes with peers and failure to provide leadership to clients. 
  • Pao argued she received similar negative feedback as the men in the firm, but they were promoted where she was not.
  • Pao argued that she was treated worse for being female, while Kleiner Perkins said if anything she was treated more positively.  
  • Pao argued that she was standing up for women as a group, e.g. that sexism was a feature of the culture, while Kleiner Perkins argued that Pao was motivated by self-interest. 
Kleiner Perkins partner and billionaire John Doerr was Pao's mentor. He called her claims "unfounded" and defended the integrity of the firm. In fact, a recent study showed that when you control for education, experience, and job title, tech fields in fact show no gender difference in pay.
But at least one industry commenter, Kumar Thangudu, suggests that Pao was at the very least "technically competent" and blames KP for "bad internal processes." (It's been noted more than once, including by Thangudu, that she recognized Twitter's potential early on but was ignored.) Commenting in Quora, he says:
"Ellen is (a) technically competent VC who hasn't been a founder but clearly has a strong heuristic to investing properly and helping founders. She's been the victim of bad internal processes at KPCB."
Similar to the inexplicably-psychotic-wife stereotype deployed in "Gone Girl," KP has attempted to portray Pao as, essentially, an aggressive, calculating b-word. But even Doerr noted that although she failed to prove her particular case, the tech industry was also on trial and lost, rightfully so.
“Now we know there was a second trial going on in the court of public opinion. And on this topic of diversity, it found against the technology industry and we, in the venture industry, we get that,” he said.
At KP, says Pao, two partners tried to engage her in a sexual relationship. One of them, Ajit Nazre, was successful. After she ended it, says Pao, he retaliated against her at work, plus was allowed to review her performance anonymously.
Harvard University has passed a policy prohibiting professors from engaging students in sexual relationships, because the power imbalance has an unethical quality that tilts against the student.
In fact, KP later fired Nazre for sexual harassment of another employee. But after Pao filed her lawsuit against KP, the company put her on a "performance improvement plan" then fired her in what it claimed was a "downsizing."
What happened at Reddit is less clear. What most of us know is that Victoria Taylor, a female employee beloved by users, was fired. But she has spoken out and we still don't know why that happened. 
We also don't know why Reddit, a virtual man-cave, would hire a seeming fighter for women's rights to serve as its CEO. From a branding point of view, this makes little sense to me. Clearly Pao's public statements reflect a cognitive dissonance at the very least about the sensibilities of the brand's users - for example she dismissed their petition about Taylor's firing as insignificant.
In the end, as we all know, the truth behind any situation is extremely gray, extremely nuanced, extremely complicated. What is clear is that branding can serve as a framework and a filter to help us make sense of complicated things.
And that branding, as in the movie "Gone Girl," is a tool wielded universally, regardless of one's particular gender. 
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Entertainment Weekly cover via E Online. All opinions are my own and do not represent those of my agency or the federal government as a whole.

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Copyright 2016 by Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D. All opinions are the author's own. Powered by Blogger.