Pinterest careers are often seen as a kinder, gentler social media start up. But according to a pair of black women who publicly resigned from the company in May 2020, the company’s public face hides a corporate culture of gender and racial discrimination that forced them out of the company and into filing a complaint with their state’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing.
Among social media startup companies, it is hard to find one with a better reputation than Pinterest. The company was started by a tech industry outsider from Iowa and is known for having etiquette policies like, “Be Nice.” At one point, co-founder Evan Sharp said that the company liked to hire “geniuses that are nice to each other.”
Much of the company’s reputation for supporting diversity was a result of the work of the company’s 3-person policy team, which included Ifeoma Ozoma and Aerica Shimizu Banks. The team was responsible for the company’s decision to stop promoting content about slave plantation weddings and anti-vaccination theories, as well as reinstating holiday pay for Pinterest contractors.
But behind closed doors, Pinterest employees face the same problems as other women in tech. In May 2020, Ozomo and Banks, both black women, publicly terminated their Pinterest careers on Twitter, posting that they were underpaid and faced gender and racial discrimination at work. Ozomo, Banks, and several other anonymous Pinterest employees told the Washington Post that the reality inside the company was very different from the public face. Ozoma told the Washington Post:
“On the one hand, Pinterest was fine with me being the person interviewed on ‘All Things Considered,’ the person who’s doing press all around the world on behalf of the company for an initiative I’m leading,” Ozoma said. “And on the other hand, they just completely did not believe that I had enough sense and enough ability, both financially and otherwise,” to keep pursuing her bias claims, which she felt Pinterest had shrugged off.
One black woman was told to stop speaking at meetings, only to watch her manager use her presentations to speak to clients in her place. The only black person on her team, she told the newspaper that an executive joked that she should act as “the servant” and “serve” her co-workers during a team dinner. She said:
“Everyone knew it was wrong, but nobody said anything in that moment.”
When the black women employees raised these issues with HR, they were made to feel imcompetent and faced retaliation. Under the guise of investigating gender and racial discrimination complaints, Pinterest hired outside investigators to dig into ways to blame the victim.
For example, in June 2019, Ozoma’s personal details were published on extremist forums such as 8chan and 4chan after Ozomo suggested creating advisory warnings around “white supremacist” statements by conservative news personality Ben Shapiro. A coworker leaked her personal information to these social media groups that organize harassment campaigns. But when Ozomo went to Pinterest’s legal department for help, the company asked a third-party company to research whether Shapiro actually was a white supremacist -- questioning the validity of her claims instead of ensuring she was safe from harassment at work.
In response to Ozomo’s and Adams’s Twitter announcement, Pinterest chief executive Ben Silbermann issued a note to his staff saying:
“What I’ve learned over the past few weeks is that parts of our culture are broken. Truthfully, I didn’t understand just how much work we have to do. That’s not an excuse, that’s a failure in leadership, and I’m truly sorry for letting you down. I’m grateful that so many of you had the courage to share your experiences honestly and openly. . . .
“It’s been devastating to hear the stories of Black employees who feel like they don’t belong at Pinterest. . . . I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t understand the depth of the hardship and hurt many of our team members have experienced. I need to do better. My leaders need to do better. And Pinterest needs to be better.”
Silbermann’s letter acknowledged that gender and racial discrimination can persist even in companies with anti-discrimination policies if workers are afraid of bringing their concerns forward. He also acknowledged a lack of diversity at the highest levels of the company. Michelle Kim, a diversity expert who hosts workshops for tech companies, including Pinterest told the Washington Post:
“Unfortunately, this is not just a Pinterest problem. Every tech company I know has stories of anti-Black racism and bias.”
In part, this is due to the tech industry’s “monoculture”, a system where white and Asian men are put into positions of power and then tend to hire people from within their networks, who tend to also be white and Asian men, who hire people from within their networks, and so on. This creates a homogenous employee group where women and minorities are underrepresented and feel out of place, even when they have excellent credentials. It isn’t that there is a lack of talent among diverse populations. For example, Ozoma and Banks had resumes including work at Google, Facebook, and the White House, as well as degrees from Oxford and Yale. However, when it comes to hiring and promoting black women and other minorities, those credentials often take a back seat to questions of “culture” and “fit” that perpetuate white male dominance within the industry.
Silbermann has promised further changes in Pinterest careers, including a comprehensive review of employee compensation and evaluations, and senior-level and board-member recruitment. However, if Ozoma’s and Banks’s circumstances show anything, it is that policies aren’t enough. Without robust internal enforcement, gender and racial discrimination will continue to thrive, and employees who face harassment and discrimination will still need to resort to employment discrimination complaints to protect themselves and their rights.
At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, our employment discrimination attorneys know that policies on paper aren’t enough to protect black women from gender and racial discrimination at work. If you work in tech or another male-dominated industry and have been treated poorly by your managers and your company, we can help. We will meet with you and review your options to get you compensation for the harm you have suffered. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation.