The image of Pinterest as a kinder, gentler social media juggernaut grew out of the site’s predominantly female user base and soft-spoken CEO — a reputation held aloft in recent years by the company’s commitments to racial and gender diversity. This made Pinterest an outlier among its generation of multibillion-dollar start-ups, where Uber’s unbridled aggression led the pack.
But since Ifeoma Ozoma and Aerica Shimizu Banks, two of the three people on Pinterest’s policy team, quit together at the end of May and soon went public with their claims, that image has grown harder for Pinterest to maintain.
The two women and other former employees, who were inspired to speak after they saw the Twitter threads, say there is little accountability at Pinterest, where some subordinates were berated, women were pushed out without warning, and executives in Silbermann’s inner circle faced no consequences despite repeated complaints. The Washington Post spoke with Ozoma, Banks and five other women who formerly worked at Pinterest, and viewed copies of performance reviews, investigation findings, emails and other documents. The other women spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation from Pinterest and further harm to their careers.
“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.
Pinterest declined to comment on specific allegations. The company pointed to a note Silbermann sent employees Monday, which was included in a statement announcing that Pinterest’s board of directors hired the law firm WilmerHale to conduct an independent review of the company’s culture.
“This is important work that will help us make Pinterest better,” Silbermann wrote, urging his staff to prioritize following up if they were contacted by the firm.
The women’s stories echo complaints across the tech world and corporate America, as companies are pressured to address systemic racism. In Silicon Valley, black employees are breaking norms by speaking out against employers and investors who failed to take their allegations seriously and often did not believe their stories of toxic bias. In recent weeks, employees have also come forward from Facebook, LinkedIn and other tech companies.
Hours after the Q&A, Silbermann sent an effusive note to his staff, apologizing for not confronting these issues. “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,” he wrote. “It’s been devastating to hear the stories of Black employees who feel like they don’t belong at Pinterest. Because of the lack of representation in senior leadership and the board. Because they are afraid to bring concerns to their managers or HR. Because they don’t feel that they have the same opportunities to grow their careers.”
But that was a shift from Silbermann’s early response to the women’s claims. Hours after Ozoma and Banks tweeted, he sent his staff an email disputing their claims without mentioning their names. “The investigations found that we treated these employees fairly. I know that this message is not nearly detailed enough to give everyone the clarity you may have hoped for,” he wrote in an email viewed by The Post.
“Unfortunately, this is not just a Pinterest problem. Every tech company I know has stories of anti-Black racism and bias,” Michelle Kim, the chief executive of Awaken, a Bay Area firm that hosts diversity workshops for tech companies, and has Pinterest for a client, said in an email.
Bias is reinforced in part because of the tech industry’s monoculture, in which white and Asian men tend to hire the people in their networks, who in turn hire from their networks, which can define what is considered acceptable workplace behavior and who is viewed as an outsider. Ozoma and Banks, however, had sterling credentials: They had worked at Google, Facebook and the White House, and studied at Oxford and Yale, upending the unspoken belief in tech that the industry’s lack of diversity is due to a lack of diverse talent.
The idea of Pinterest as an exception to the rule was an outgrowth of Silbermann’s unassuming persona as a nontechnical transplant from Iowa who came up with the idea for online pinboards because he collected insects as a kid. The site’s earliest adopters were Mormon women and Midwestern moms. The first rule on Pinterest’s etiquette page was “Be nice.”
As Pinterest grew, it increasingly defined itself in opposition to the recklessness of growth-at-all-costs start-ups. When Pinterest was a five-year-old company already valued at $ 11 billion, co-founder Evan Sharp told Business Insider that Pinterest liked to hire “geniuses that are nice to each other,” rather than follow the “stereotype of a successful startup” as an “aggressive, type A place.”
That year, in 2015, Pinterest announced its strategy to increase diversity inside the company, including hiring a start-up called Paradigm to train employees and executives in unconscious bias, hiring a head of diversity and inclusion, and publicizing its hiring goals to hold itself accountable to making meaningful improvements on diversity. (Four percent of Pinterest’s workforce is black, according to the latest figures released by the company.)
The reality inside the company was different, the former employees said. One black female former employee said she was told to stop speaking in meetings and watched her manager use the presentations she created to speak to clients instead. The woman, who was the only black person on her team, said an executive joked that she should act as “the servant” and “serve” her co-workers at a team dinner. “Everyone knew it was wrong, but nobody said anything in that moment,” said the ex-employee, who said she was too scared of retaliation to report the incident to HR.
Another black ex-employee said a top marketing executive told her that she was surprised that marketing material showing a black woman, created by the ex-employee, was successful.
Most of the women said they were made to feel incompetent after raising these issues. Most said they believed their experience inside Pinterest was unique until they heard what happened to Ozoma and Banks.
Now, nearly 25,000 people have signed a petition demanding that Pinterest pay its black employees fairly.
Ozoma and Banks were well-respected in tech circles for spearheading improvements to Pinterest’s policies, including the decision to stop promoting content about slave plantation weddings and to block anti-vaccination content, as well as the decision to reinstate holiday pay for Pinterest contractors in December 2019.
The content policies were frequently cited in media coverage as Pinterest prepared to go public last year, insulating Silbermann from the type of scrutiny around misinformation and racist content that greeted his social networking rivals.
Yet, behind the scenes, Ozoma and Banks were rebuked and investigated for championing those decisions around content moderation and contractor pay, they said.
They say that they were unknowingly assigned lower levels on Pinterest’s internal hierarchy for doing the same work as their manager, who is white. Ozoma received two raises and a promotion during her two-year tenure at the company, which she said was a reflection of her job performance, but the changes did not address her concern about being hired at the wrong level. Both women said their lower level in the internal hierarchy deprived them of stock options they believe are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In June 2019, Ozoma’s name, cellphone number, email address and photo were published on extremist forums, including 8chan and 4chan, where users organize harassment campaigns after a co-worker leaked documents to a right-wing news organization. In one of the documents, Ozoma suggested looking into creating an advisory warning for content from conservative media personality Ben Shapiro, whom she described as “a white supremacist,” which angered Shapiro’s supporters.
Ozoma said she had sought help regarding the publication of her personal details from a third-party company named Storyful, which she had worked with on health misinformation, after Pinterest’s deputy general counsel brushed off warnings from Ozoma and Banks that individual employees were likely to be targeted, according to emails viewed by The Post.
But when Pinterest’s legal department took over monitoring, the company asked Storyful to investigate whether Shapiro actually was a white supremacist. “Instead of focusing on security and making sure that we were fine and validating the concerns that we had, their concern was: Is what you said valid? Almost like [the employee] had a legitimate reason to share my personal information all over the Internet,” Ozoma said.
In an email exchange with Silbermann the day she was doxed, Ozoma shared her disappointment in Pinterest, including screen images of the harassment she received. “I’m personally concerned that when these risks were raised, we didn’t take the right steps,” the CEO wrote, vowing to ask his deputies to look into the matter. Ozoma said she received no follow-up from Silbermann.
Banks also claims that Pinterest was more aggressive about investigating her actions than the complaints she raised. In December, Banks had advised the company to reinstate holiday pay for contractors, a position that Pinterest’s federal consultants congratulated Banks for pushing, according to an email viewed by The Post. However, under pressure from management who disagreed with the situation, the consultants, from a firm that advises Pinterest on interactions with regulators and government agencies, falsely said they had not advised that course of action, Banks alleged.
In response, Pinterest’s “business conduct” team investigated Banks’s policy decision, including searching through an employee’s cellphone to try to find WhatsApp and Facebook messages with Ozoma or Banks, and then accidentally forwarded the screen images to Banks, according to emails viewed by The Post. Pinterest never informed Banks of the outcome of the investigation, she said.
Both women say they hoped to resolve their disputes internally. Even after they filed documents in 2019 with California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing indicating their intent to sue, Pinterest still had the same manager they had been complaining about for months conduct their reviews.
When the women posted parts of their story on Twitter, the uproar was immediate. Public policy executives from Facebook and Google praised their skills and accomplishments. Color of Change, an advocacy group that had worked with the women on restricting marketing for plantation weddings before they quit, posted a statement saying Pinterest’s “hypocrisy is glaring,” considering statements the company made in support of Black Lives Matter.
Responding to internal and external pressure, Pinterest took a page from Uber, whose chief executive Travis Kalanick hired former attorney general Eric Holder to investigate the company’s culture after allegations of rampant sexism.
“I’m not sure that they remember Kalanick ended up stepping down,” Ozoma said.
This story has been updated to reflect that Pinterest is one of Awaken’s clients.