Pao, who now leads the nonprofit Project Include, reflected on her decades-long career in a recent interview with CNN Business, saying that she learned a lot of “painful” lessons along the way and didn’t always feel respected as an Asian American woman, even in her stint as chief of one of the world’s top social networks.
“I think the biggest myth about tech and also the way I was raised, and a lot of Asians are raised, is that the workplace is a meritocracy. And if you work hard and you don’t complain and you do a good job, that you’ll be rewarded and that you will be treated fairly,” Pao said.
“[But] actually, you learn at a certain point that that’s actually not the case. And for many people, it’s never the case.”
Unease in the workplace
But according to Pao, the obstacles didn’t end there.
“There are definitely times when I did not feel included, where I wasn’t part of board interactions, where there were conversations that went on that I wasn’t part of, even as CEO,” she said. “There were definitely some people that I felt were uncomfortable working for me, not because of my accomplishments, but perhaps because I was Asian … or because I’m a woman.”
Some of the board discussions “happened toward the end of my time at Reddit,” she added.
“At the end, I was asked to resign,” said Pao. “So I imagine those were the conversations that were happening. But, you know, there are people that I was working with day to day where I would have assumed that they would have let me know, and given me a heads-up that these conversations were happening.”
The former chief executive also said that “there was somebody who would not report to me — insisting on reporting to the board — and that, as CEO, that didn’t feel great.”
“There were so many examples, it’s hard to list all of them,” she said. “It’s hard to know what part of it is race-based and what part of it is gender-based.”
Reddit did not respond to a request for additional comment on Monday.
Pao described some of the backlash toward her at the time as graphic threats, “racist memes” and “Photoshopped images,” which took aim at her ethnicity or gender.
Altman alluded to those posts after her resignation, writing: “It was sickening to see some of the things redditors wrote about Ellen.”
According to Pao, her story is not uncommon. She cited a recent anecdote from a friend, an Asian CEO of a successful startup, who “definitely felt some of the same things I felt — being excluded from really being part of the board … even though he had participated in this success and growth.”
“It’s a story that you hear from multiple Asian CEOs and it’s one that’s not great,” she said.
A worsening problem
Such experiences are at least one reason why the recent spate of attacks on Asians aren’t a total surprise, according to Pao.
“There’s a part of me where logically it’s just the extension of the experiences I’ve had in the past,” said Pao.
“[But] I’m convinced that change is going to happen, because when I look at Gen Z and millennial workers, they are looking for something very different,” she said. “What [also] gives me hope and encouragement is seeing Asians and Asian Americans speak up for other communities.”
“I know from personal experience there are so many pressures that are pushing you to keep it quiet, to not rock the boat, to swallow your bitterness, to chi ku in the Asian culture,” she said, referring to the popular Chinese saying that urges one to not complain about personal struggles.
“To see so many people speaking up at great personal cost, at professional cost, to lose a well-paying, stable job, because they see inequities and because they want to change the industry is very inspiring. It gives me hope that people will force change and that these companies can’t continue the way they have been without changing.”