Can a woman be an executive and still face gender discrimination? Former Pinterest COO sued the social media company, saying she was fired when she spoke out against discrimination at work. Now the company has settled her lawsuit for $22.5 million, promising to do better by its women workers.
If you look at Pinterest users by gender, you might assume that women run the company. Seventy percent of the social media platform’s user base is women. But according to Francoise Brougher, the company continues to be steered by men. Pinterest’s COO (Chief Operating Officer) from March 2018 to August 2020, Brougher had half the company’s 1,500 employees reporting to her, but she still wasn’t included at the boardroom level.
In her Medium article, “The Pinterest Paradox. Cupcakes and Toxicity,” Ms. Brougher said she was fired for not being “collaborative.”
“I believe that I was fired for speaking out about the rampant discrimination, hostile work environment, and misogyny that permeates Pinterest.”
Brougher said important decisions were often made in the “meeting after the meeting” where CEO Ben Silbermann would hold private conversations with two or three of his “in group” -- invariably men. This group held all the power and influence. Executive meetings were short and formal without banter or debate on critical issues. The decisions made at the “meeting after the meeting” felt illogical and demoralizing to those who had to execute them.
Even as Pinterest pushed toward its Initial Public Offering (IPO), the job Brougher was hired to do, she began to be excluded from the process. Brougher said the team presenting Pinterest to investors used her presentation, but she was not allowed to go on the roadshow. As part of the IPO process, Brougher also realized she was being unfairly compensated -- her stock options were backloaded forcing her to stay with the company longer to receive the same equity as her fellow executives.
Trusting Pinterest’s “culture of candor,” Brougher went to HR. The company fixed the backloading, but Brougher said then it began retaliating against her for coming forward. She stopped being invited to board meetings. Her next performance review she was told she was “not collaborative.” She was criticized for her communication style and for “misusing [her] energy and work ethic.”
Then came the public diversity problems. In May 2020, two thirds of the Pinterest policy team, Ifeoma Ozoma and Aerica Shimizu Banks, publicly terminated their Pinterest careers saying they faced gender and racial discrimination within the company. In the months leading up to their resignations, the ladies, and other women at Pinterest, reached out to Brougher with complaints they were being excluded or undervalued.
After a personal illness and another performance review, Brougher said her achievements at the company had been reduced to “diversity” -- a common form of gender discrimination. Eventually, Brougher was fired. The man who told her asked her to say leaving Pinterest was her decision. She refused. Instead, she, like the policy team, publicly voiced the problems of racial and sexual discrimination within the company through social media and other internet platforms.
In August 2020, in the wake of Ms. Brougher’s termination and a worldwide pandemic, 236 Pinterest employees participated in a virtual walkout. They signed an online petition calling on Silberman to change the company’s policies, then they logged off -- protesting the company’s treatment of its black and female employees.
After allegedly being fired for speaking out about diversity, Ms. Brougher filed a lawsuit against Pinterest for gender discrimination. Eager to avoid the publicity around an executive-level discrimination lawsuit, Pinterest agreed to settle the case within months. The total settlement: $22.5 million, the largest ever publicly awarded settlement awarded to a single individual.
Pinterest, of course, did not admit any wrongdoing in the settlement. However, it did agree to donate $2.5 million, which Ms. Brougher will match, to charities supporting women and minorities in the tech industry. The company will also undertake several steps to increase gender and racial diversity, bringing on two new board members, and creating a company-wide wiki (community managed website) to improve salary transparency. Brougher was interviewed by the New York Times, about the settlement, saying:
“I’m glad Pinterest took this very seriously. . . . I’m hoping it’s a first step in creating a better work environment there.”
At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, our employment discrimination attorneys know that sometimes publicity is the best way to pressure a large company into addressing problems of racial and gender discrimination at work. If you feel that you are an executive in name only, and that your company is discriminating against you despite your title, 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.