I used to joke that “Pinterest saved my life.” Not literally, of course, but during an especially dark period in 2011, the platform best associated with “Mormon women and Midwestern moms” (as recently noted by the Washington Post) became an unexpected lifeline out of depression and back into my creative self.
Ensconced in the emotional retreat that my sofa had become, I bypassed the bevy of Mason jar and string light-laden plantation weddings, religious platitudes, fitspo and homeschooling advice (typical fare of Pinterest’s earliest adopters), curating my own space of unambiguously Black beauty, art and creators. I may not have represented Pinterest’s original or even intended demographic, but the unconventional form of therapy I found there lived up to the platform’s promise to be a “home for inspiration”—and as an early adopter myself, I inadvertently amassed a large following (4 million, to date).
This was the story I’d planned to write this July for BIPOC Mental Health Month, as our nationwide lockdown—and the low-grade depression that became not only my own battle but a universal one—sparked my own personal reunion with Pinterest. But a different story about the platform emerged last month; one that gave deeper context to my experience of being a Black woman who once immersed herself in Pinterest’s largely whitewashed world.
In June, former Pinterest Public Policy and Social Impact Managers Ifeoma Ozoma and Aerica Shimizu Banks went public with complaints against the company, alleging that Pinterest knowingly and deliberately under-leveled and accordingly underpaid them for their responsibilities and experience, effectively cheating them out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary and stock options at the popular online platform. When the two women attempted to resolve the issue—first internally and then via formal complaints filed with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, they say management and colleagues resorted to intimidation tactics.
Perhaps most disturbingly, the intimidation included the doxxing of Ozoma by a colleague who placed her information on alt-right forums in June of 2019, resulting in threats of assault and murder. The company neither assisted Ozoma in scrubbing her information nor punished the offending employee. (CEO Ben Silbermann did personally apologize to Ozoma and offer to send a security officer to her home, an offer she declined.) The treatment ultimately compelled both women to resign this May, later filing their complaints with DFEH.
Business Insider was the first to break the story, which was also covered by the Washington Post and Fast Company. Following Pinterest’s online declarations that they stand in support of Black lives following the protests that arose in late May, Color of Change Campaign Director Jade Magnus Ogunnaike issued a statement in support of Ozoma and Shimizu Banks titled “Pinterest’s Hypocrisy Is Glaring.”
The hypocrisy of which Ogunnaike was speaking was partly in reference to the highly publicized removal of plantation weddings from the platform last December when Pinterest joined several platforms in Color Of Change’s campaign to abolish the promotion of slavery-associated destination weddings, effectively rendering them “gone with the wind.”
It was a campaign Ozoma had spearheaded for Pinterest, despite already being in a yearlong-plus dispute with the company over the level at which she’d been hired in July 2018. At the time, she’d been told the salary she’d negotiated was the top available for her bracket. Upon discovering that the level at which she’d been hired was three levels below commensurate with her skills and experience in the industry—which included creating and managing global policy programs for Facebook and working in public policy and government relations for Google—she flagged her managers, but no immediate resolution or restitution was offered. The issue remained unresolved by the time she resigned in May of 2020.
“[The pay chart is] not transparent at all—which is by design,” she told The Glow Up. “And for me, it was three months after I started that I discovered the level chart. I started full-time in July of 2018 and didn’t find out what my level was until September of 2018, and that’s the case for many people, and how they’re able to keep folks from negotiating with full context.”
Shimizu Banks, who’d previously worked with Ozoma as a patent policy analyst at Google, joined Pinterest in 2019, where she and Ozoma worked on a three-person team that included a white male manager with lesser credentials than theirs. Nevertheless, Shimizu Banks was also told she’d negotiated to the top salary available for her experience, which included a stint in the Obama Administration and being honored as a 2018 Forbes 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneur.
“I also negotiated to the top of the pay bands that I was offered—not to the very top; I was told that wasn’t possible,” she told The Glow Up. “But I was also told that Ifeoma had played a substantive role in the forming of the level chart, and that turned out to be a total lie. I was also told that there was no tenure or experience required for promotion—it was based on performance—that also turned out to be a lie.
“And so those are just a couple of the ways in which Pinterest and other companies like it get to sort of continually move the goalpost,” she explained.
By their accounts, their manager was not only fairly compensated for his position but frequently demonstrated behavior problematic enough (including racial gaffes and inappropriate comments) to compel each woman to file complaints. Nevertheless, the two continued to bolster the public image of a company that continually scrutinized, underpaid and undervalued them while repeatedly ignoring their concerns.
“The company was happy to take all of that credit,” said Ozoma, referencing the success of the Color of Change anti-plantation campaign. “But then, the same manager who I had filed multiple complaints against by that point was still in charge of my performance review, which affected my pay.”
“Our work was very public but the way that we were treated they expected to never be public,” she later added.
It’s a radically different reality from what the Washington Post characterized as a “kinder, gentler” version of the typical Silicon Valley tech juggernaut. But the implications for the women’s future professional and financial mobility in the notoriously lucrative tech space are far more staggering, as they explained to The Glow Up. Despite an impressive work history and degrees from the likes of Yale (Ozoma) and Oxford and Princeton (Shimizu Banks), they were still subject to the gender pay gap; this, despite bringing tangible returns to their employers. It’s a brutal reality made even harsher as we commemorate yet another Black Women’s Equal Pay Day today, August 13, and consider the longterm implications of perpetuating pay disparities.
“We are set back from the jump and we’re supposed to be grateful just to be considered,” Shimizu Banks said, adding: “We have credentials that if this white person had the [same] credentials, they would be a director-plus at the company and we’re supposed to be grateful for being under-leveled and stymied in our pursuit of professional mobility.”
“Not only where we cheated out of the pay that we would have received while we were there; the difference in the pay that they slotted us in versus what we were doing and what we earned is the difference between [earning a salary and] developing generational wealth,” said Ozoma. “And for our communities, that is so important…the order of magnitude in what we got and the compensation versus what we were owed is the difference between going on vacation and buying a house. And for our communities—and for Black women, specifically—we know that pay disparities just stack up over time.
“The earlier you’re paid less, the longer it takes to retire, the longer it takes to do the sorts of things that our white peers are able to do and set their kids up for success,” she continued. “And so, what Pinterest did to us, we’re not going to feel the effects of it just in the two years that we were there; it’ll be over the rest of our careers.”
“And to add to that, you know, we, as Black women, so often face familial responsibilities that our white counterparts don’t,” Shimizu Banks chimed in, referencing both the fact that Black families tend not to have generational wealth to give their children a head start, and that she personally provides for her mother. “When you think about the Black community, we are so often part of multigenerational households where Black women are the breadwinners—and we’re not just paying for our spouses and our kids, we’re usually also supporting extended family.”
Neither woman has worked full-time since filing their complaint (though Shimizu Banks runs her own consulting company). Going public was a risk they felt privileged to be able to take, even amid the ongoing economic threat of COVID-19. Both believe the issue is far bigger than themselves.
“Like, there’s so many layers of oppression here,” said Ozoma. “The first one is most people in our position don’t have the ability to hire a lawyer...that’s one of the ways that companies keep people from talking about what has happened to them because you literally can’t even afford to get counsel to then dive deep on what is actually being done to you...We know that COVID is disproportionately affecting us and our communities; how many of us can afford to even take the risk of not being in a job right now?”
“We took a calculated risk,” Shimizu Banks added. “If we hadn’t been discriminated against we would be in our jobs in Pinterest working. And so, we are missing out on that salary; we’re missing out on accruing those benefits.
“One piece of compensation that a lot of people don’t know about tech is that in terms of your stock, your compensation is a combination of the salary, stock and sometimes a bonus,” she continued. “But you do not receive your stock unless you complete a full year—and you don’t receive the total of your stock until several years out, so what you negotiate for in the beginning does not materialize until sometimes up to five years later.
“And we had to forego that to stand up for ourselves and to file these complaints and we were pushed to quit for doing that,” she added. “We hope that by coming forward other companies will think twice before they decide to be as racist and sexist to the degree that Pinterest is...hopefully, we’ll be able to impact the industry at large this way.”
The Glow Up reached out to Pinterest for comment on this article; a spokesperson issued the following statement: “We never want anyone to feel the way Ifeoma and Aerica did while they were working at Pinterest. We’re committed to immediately taking the actions that we’ve outlined to our employees, and we’re actively pursuing this work.” We were also directed to a link to the statement from Pinterest’s board of directors and Silbermann’s note to employees following the filing of the complaint, in which he said: “I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t understand the depth of the hardship and hurt many of our team members have experienced.”
However, at least one former employee weighed in on the issue for Business Insider, which wrote: “One person familiar with management’s thinking at the time who is no longer with the company pushed back on their claim; they said the two women were already well paid and had received multiple raises though not the precise promotion or pay they sought...[saying] ‘This is a story of mismanaged expectations wrongly folded into African Americans’ collective story of oppression.’”
“First of all, who are you to tell me what’s well paid when I’m in an industry where people make millions of dollars a year—and believe me, we were not making that at all, even though there are people at the company that do,” said Shimizu Banks, clarifying that she’d received neither a raise nor promotion during her tenure at the company.
“That quote, it was so insulting but also a relief to hear them kind of say the quiet part out loud, where there’s denigration from the beginning,” she added.
Ozoma agreed, stating: “We wouldn’t have even been hired if we didn’t go to the schools and had the pedigree that we had, so there’s that, first...So not only did I have to go to the best schools and then I had to work in the best companies before I could even get an interview and then get hired but I do all that and I can’t even get paid according to the chart that they created for the work that I’m doing. There is literally no way to catch up.”
Sadly, as both women note, the disadvantages of being sidelined fall upon not only them, but Pinterest and other companies that do the same.
“Maintaining and sustaining and investing in the people that you have—we were exceptional performers in our roles—is actually the best thing you can do for your business,” said Ozoma. “It’s not even rocket science; this isn’t all of the training you need in the world, this isn’t an implicit bias, this isn’t a pipeline issue. It is literally just treating people fairly so that you don’t continue to turn good talent in and out.”
Instead, it has become yet another of many racial reckonings taking place in 2020. “This is about holding the company and the entire industry accountable for this,” Ozoma continued, admitting that ultimately, she doesn’t expect Pinterest to do the right thing without being legally compelled to do so, which is why she and Shimuzu Banks were willing to go public and take this fight to the legislative level.
“This is wage theft,” Ozoma adds. “And so, I want them to at least pause for a second when they decide to not only engage in wage theft but then retaliation and intimidation in the way that they have with us—and think about what the consequences of that could be for the company.”
Shimuzu Banks agrees, echoing so many professional and personal narratives when she says: “What makes this worthwhile, in addition to just speaking up for ourselves and honoring our own dignity and our own self-worth is the countless number of women—specifically, Black women—who have reached out to us individually to share their stories from all ages, all industries to say, ‘Not only do we believe you but this happened to me too...thank you for sharing your story because it validates mine, even if I don’t tell anyone else.’
“And it really pains me to know that every single Black woman I know has gone through something like this,” she concludes. “My heart breaks to know this and at the same time, I’m so honored to be in a community of such strong and resilient women. And I want this to end; it truly needs to end.”
Updated: Thursday, 8/13/20 at 5:40 pm: An earlier version of this article indicated that Ozoma and Shimuzu Banks had filed suit against Pinterest. While the two obtained the right to sue from the California DFEH, they found their legal avenues insufficient. Both the article and our headline have been amended to reflect this, as well as clarifying Shimuzu Banks’ title at Pinterest, which was also Public Policy and Social Impact Manager.
While Ozoma and Shimuzu Banks tell The Glow Up they have no further plans to pursue legal action, it appears that change at Pinterest is imminent, nevertheless. On Tuesday, the company’s former chief operating officer and top female executive, Françoise Brougher, filed a gender bias lawsuit against Pinterest, following an unceremonious departure in April of this year.
As reported by the New York Times:
Ms. Brougher accused the $21 billion company, which makes virtual pinboards, of firing her after she complained about sexist treatment. In her suit, which was filed in San Francisco Superior Court, Ms. Brougher said she had been left out of important meetings, was given gendered feedback, was paid less than her male peers when she joined the company, and ultimately was let go for speaking up about it.
“Gender discrimination at the C-level suite may be a little more subtle, but it’s very insidious and real,” Ms. Brougher, 54, said in an interview. “When men speak out, they get rewarded. When women speak out, they get fired.”
Additionally, as this article went to press, another announcement came from employees of the company declaring solidarity with Ozoma, Shimuzu Banks and Brougher and demanding #changeatpinterest.
An online statement read.
We are employees of Pinterest.
We care about the company we work for.
We believe that Ben Silbermann is a good person trying to do the right thing.
However, Ifeoma Ozoma, Aerica Shimizu Banks, and Francoise Brougher have accused Pinterest of racial and gender discrimination. Even when unintended, all forms of discrimination and retaliation at Pinterest must stop.
In addition to an anonymous petition demanding systemic change, the employees are planning a walkout on Friday, August 14.
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