Art for Conflict of Pinterest.
Rafia Zakaria,  December 18

Conflict of Pinterest

Women-friendly on the outside, toxic on the inside

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In 2015, Pinterest—allegedly the kinder, nicer tech company—partnered with the consultancy Paradigm to increase diversity in the company, whose workforce remains only 4 percent Black. Yet even as the usual platitudes about diversity and inclusion and bringing change to the boys’ club that is the tech world were being mouthed on the outside, inside the company, a different and racist reality prevailed. According to a report in the Washington Post, a Black female employee, the only one on her team, was told by a white supervisor not to speak during meetings, after which the supervisor took credit for her work. Another executive “joked” that she should play the “servant” and “serve” the other members of the team.

These are only a few examples of Pinterest’s dirty innards. This Monday, another of Pinterest’s victims, Francoise Brougher, settled her own gender discrimination lawsuit against the company for $22.5 million. Brougher, the former chief operating officer of the company, was fired in April after she accused Pinterest of marginalizing and silencing women and excluding them from decision-making during a video chat. In a blog post published this August, Brougher describes an exclusive environment that centered on the site’s billionaire CEO Ben Silbermann. During Pinterest’s IPO process, Brougher discovered that she was being paid less than her male counterparts. When she complained, it was the beginning of her end at the company. Shortly after the IPO in 2019, she stopped being invited to board meetings, and one year later, she was fired under the pretext that she was not “collaborative.”

Two months before Brougher spoke out about her termination, two other women hired to improve Pinterest’s public image also went public about the treatment that they had faced while working there. Ifeoma Ozoma and Aerica Shimizu Banks, two out of the three members of Pinterest’s public policy team, quit in May. In June, Ozoma, prompted by a “Black Employees Matter” tweet on the Pinterest account, tweeted about what she had gone through in the past year just to be treated fairly by the company. The horrors included being doxxed by a fellow employee who shared all of her private information with racist and misogynistic parts of the internet. Even as she was made the face of Pinterest’s public policy wins, her boss, a white woman, gave her a bad performance review for not both-sidesing her push to eliminate pictures promoting weddings at plantation venues from the platform. Ozoma and Banks also learned that they were put at lower levels on Pinterest’s hierarchy than their white manager despite doing the same work, which deprived them of stock options they believe to be potentially worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Prompted by Ozoma and Banks as well as the pending Brougher issue, hundreds of Pinterest employees staged a virtual walkout in August.

In the aftermath of all of this, Pinterest has committed to all sorts of policies that are geared toward improving their culture and their treatment of racial and gender issues. The hefty settlement with Brougher, one of the highest ever paid in such a lawsuit, will likely ensure some deeper soul searching, at least as it pertains to gender discrimination. A tech company geared toward women planning weddings, or searching for lovely table settings and a palette for their room décor (among many, many other things), may now learn that it has to be nice to the women who actually work for them.

Craftiness is great, but feminism is better, and organized feminism is the best.

The issue of racial discrimination is much thornier. Sites like Pinterest not only reflect aesthetic culture; they create it. This means that when Black women enter the fray and point out the entrenched racism of, say, pushing pictures of beautiful weddings at plantation homes that were the sites of racist abuse, they also point to the complicity of a culture that has unyieldingly declared these pictures permissible, even worthy of emulation. In America’s cutthroat corporate culture, which prioritizes self-advancement above all else, the very idea that Blackness confers a clearer perspective where these judgments are concerned is outright anathema. Simply put, a Black woman may be hired to point out just such things as plantation weddings, yet when she does, her white competitors—often also women—see her as unfairly benefiting from Blackness. That whiteness has conferred much greater advantages to white women and men does not hold back the qualms of those eager to point out the unfairness of Blackness or brownness being utilized as a career plus.

Then there is the issue of being a woman and continuing to use Pinterest. Knowledge of the toxic culture within this tech company should impute responsibilities on the women who use it. Simply put, it cannot only be the employees of the company who stage virtual walkouts. Craftiness is great, but feminism is better, and organized feminism is the best. If the millions of women who use Pinterest are made to realize the moral complicity of supporting a business that does not support women, the possibility of dramatic changes in its corporate culture skyrockets. Boycotts may or may not work where other businesses are concerned, but in this case, where the errant business caters to women first and foremost, they are almost guaranteed to galvanize change.

When Francis Brougher found out that she was being remunerated far less than her male counterparts, she spoke up. Similarly, when Ifeoma Ozoma and Aerica Shizumi Banks saw the hypocrisy of an organization that put on a public face devoted to racial and gender justice while ignoring it within, they took to Twitter. These actions reveal the transformed landscape in which discrimination claims may now be litigated; where once a woman had to have the money and wherewithal to file a discrimination claim, often compiling evidence in secret, she can now use social media to her advantage. Where once there was no support for the lone woman daring to speak out, a blog post can galvanize supporters from far and wide. The law has long forbidden gender and racial discrimination, but we may well be at a moment when the pressure of public shaming can transform companies and culture itself. The truth may not be as pretty as a Pinterest board, but it is empowering, should we choose solidarity and act on it.

Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon 2015) and Veil (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn in Pakistan. She writes regularly for the Guardian, Boston Review, The New Republic, and The New York Times Book Review.

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