Two Black women who left Pinterest's three-person policy team last month say they were the victims of racism, discrimination and "gaslighting" from managers and fellow employees.
Ifeoma Ozoma and Aerica Shimizu Banks say they were underpaid and undervalued during their time at Pinterest, and Ozoma says she has filed a legal complaint against the company with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing over "unfair pay and treatment."
"The company was happy to have our Black faces on the work but not to pay us," Ozoma said in a phone interview with Protocol on Monday.
"We took these issues seriously and conducted a thorough investigation when they were raised, and we're confident both employees were treated fairly," a Pinterest spokesperson told Protocol. "We want each and every one of our employees at Pinterest to feel welcomed, valued and respected. As we outlined in our statement on June 2, we're committed to advancing our work in inclusion and diversity by taking action at our company and on our platform. In areas where we, as a company, fall short, we must and will do better."
The company has been working to diversify its workforce for years, and its latest diversity report from January shows Pinterest is 45% white, 44% Asian, 6% Hispanic/Latinx, 4% Black and 1% two or more races.
During her nearly two years at the company, Ozoma heralded a widely praised effort to crack down on health misinformation, which the company cited during its IPO last year. Banks handled Pinterest's work with the federal government for more than a year.
Banks raised concerns about her supervisor with Pinterest's human resources department last year, according to a copy of the company's investigative findings obtained by Protocol.
Three months after starting at Pinterest, Banks — who is half Japanese — alleged in a complaint that the supervisor had exhibited "bias" by making "inappropriate comments" about the origin of ramen noodles during an offsite ramen-making event. Banks said in the complaint that her supervisor had asked her about animosity between Chinese and Japanese people over the origin of ramen noodles and that his comments made her feel uncomfortable. The HR investigator ultimately found the comments were not made with "ill intent or communicated in a malicious manner," so there had been no wrongdoing.
Later, according to the complaint, Banks alleged that her supervisor asked her if she was uncomfortable with a fellow colleague, a Jewish woman, who she said he noted was a "'New Yorker' and can be 'Seinfeld'-like." According to the investigation report, the supervisor said he did not reference "Seinfeld" during the conversation. Ultimately, the HR department did not find any evidence that the supervisor discriminated or retaliated against Banks, according to the document.
In an email to Banks, an HR representative said that even if the supervisor had "asked for your ethnic perspective uninvited" and referenced "a show about people from a similar cultural background uninvited," those statements would not "indicate bias on their own and are not a violation of our Code of Conduct."
Separately, Ozoma alleged that Pinterest failed to do enough to protect her when a right-wing activist group published her cell phone number and other personal information as part of an expose on Pinterest.
Ozoma said she faced a deluge of harassment and death threats across her social media accounts as a result of the expose.
"Calling my little sister this morning to tell her to remove all publicly available references to me, and to lock down all of her accounts, was heartbreaking," Ozoma wrote to Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann on June 11, 2019, according to a copy of the email shared with Protocol.
In an emailed response, Silbermann said that he was "personally concerned that when these risks were raised, we didn't take the right steps." Still, Ozoma said she was mostly left to protect herself, including by asking for help from former colleagues at Google and Facebook and others.
More broadly, Banks and Ozoma said they were routinely ignored, dismissed and treated with skepticism that they said appeared inflected by racism and sexism. Ozoma said her supervisor criticized her for how she handled concerns over slave plantation-themed wedding content on Pinterest. Banks said she was criticized for how she handled a discussion of whether contractors should be paid over holidays.
"I've done policy work for years — I know how to make a recommendation," said Banks, who previously worked at Google and at the White House under former President Obama.
"We want to make sure this doesn't happen to other Black women especially," she said. "This shouldn't happen to anyone."
Ozoma and Banks said they felt it was important to speak out after seeing Pinterest's public statement of support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
"I personally believe that I was treated with the retaliation I experienced and the dismissiveness because they don't expect a Black woman, even one who's doing all of the work that I did on behalf of the company … to be paid what I was worth," Ozoma said.
She said it is "larger" than just Pinterest. "Anywhere there are Black women in professional roles … you're going to see stories like this," she said. "The reason why you don't hear them often is because of the kind of retaliation that we just put ourselves in the firing line for."
Updated: This post was updated on June 15 to include a statement from Pinterest.