Former Pinterest executive: ‘I really hit the glass ceiling very hard’

By Pavithra Mohan

In April, Françoise Brougher was fired from her post as the chief operating officer at Pinterest. The news was delivered to her during a 10-minute video call, and, as Brougher later recounted in a Medium post, the only explanation Pinterest offered was that she was not collaborative and lacked “strong cross-functional relationships.”

But Brougher believes the real reason for her unceremonious ousting is that she sounded the alarm on the alleged gender discrimination she faced at Pinterest—a claim that impelled her to bring a lawsuit against the company in August. “I still want Pinterest to be accountable for what happened to me,” Brougher said today during a panel at Fast Company’s Innovation Festival. “I want them to take responsibility; I want them to recognize the shortcomings of the culture there and take responsibility and ownership of it.” (Pinterest has not commented on the specifics of the lawsuit but is reportedly doing a formal review of its “policies and practices concerning discrimination, harassment, and other workplace issues.”)

Brougher described an atmosphere where she was often left out of meetings—the “meetings after the meeting,” as she called them—where decisions were made without her involvement. One major red flag, she said, was that she was excluded from the road show leading up to Pinterest’s initial public offering in 2019, a tour of meetings during which executives court potential investors before a company goes public. (According to Brougher, a male employee who worked for her and was good friends with CEO Ben Silbermann was invited to the road show in her place.) During the pre-IPO proceedings, Brougher also discovered that the vesting schedule for her equity grants was significantly different from that of her peers. During her first year at Pinterest, Brougher only vested 37% of what Pinterest’s CFO did.

The incident that Brougher said catalyzed her firing was when she allegedly received gendered feedback in a performance review. “One of my colleagues [wrote] that I was a champion of diversity, which was really just tied to my gender, and he didn’t write anything else about my accomplishments at the company,” Brougher said. “When I tried to talk to him, he became very hostile, to the point that I had to go to HR [and] the CEO. They said they would take care of it and help me. But a month later, I was fired.”

During her time at Pinterest, Brougher said, she fell into what has been dubbed the “abrasiveness trap,” when women are penalized for offering an opinion or critique that would draw praise if it came from a man. “You fall into it when you’re in a meeting and all the real decision-makers are men,” Brougher said. “You’re the only female. You have a different opinion. You express it, and then four months later, in your performance review, you are criticized for it.”

For Brougher, the experience at Pinterest was markedly different from what she encountered at previous employers such as Google and Square. “I really hit the glass ceiling very hard,” Brougher said. “And I’m in my fifties, and I’ve worked twenty-plus years in [Silicon Valley].” But many tech companies have long been unfriendly to women, and in recent years, women across the industry have gone public with allegations of sexist treatment and misconduct.

In fact, Brougher said she was partly inspired to speak out after two Black women who used to work at Pinterest raised allegations of racial discrimination and pay inequities. In June, after Pinterest put out a statement pledging solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, Ifeoma Ozoma and Aerica Shimizu Banks revealed that they were both hired at a lower level than they should have been and were underpaid, given the scope of their roles. (Pinterest initially denied the allegations but later struck a more conciliatory tone in an internal statement, outlining steps the company would take to revamp its culture and policies; the company also introduced its first Black board member in August, on the heels of a virtual walkout protesting discrimination and retaliation.)

“Reading what they experienced gave me the courage to come forward,” Brougher said of their allegations. “I realized there was no reason not to come forward and also to support them.” After Brougher sued, The Verge reported on allegations of discrimination and unequal pay from former members of Pinterest’s finance team.

That’s also why, as companies invest in diversity and inclusion work, Brougher urges them to focus not just on hiring but also on retaining and rewarding diverse employees. She believes it’s important to publicly share diversity metrics and introduce pay transparency—and that employees in positions of power shouldn’t be protected if they’re responsible for misconduct or retaliation. “I think it’s important to recognize the whistleblower,” she said, “and to almost cherish the whistleblowers that come to you and say your company culture is problematic.”

The board of directors can also play an active role in upholding company culture and prioritizing equity and inclusion initiatives. “Like any other business metrics, the CEO needs to be accountable,” Brougher said. “And the board needs to hold the CEO and the management team accountable for what’s going on in the company. I think that’s entirely the prerogative of the board.”

In the tech industry, ironclad nondisclosure agreements have quickly become a powerful tool to silence employees. That’s why, as a woman in the C-suite—and as someone who could afford to decline signing an NDA in exchange for severance—Brougher recognizes that she is uniquely situated to be outspoken about her experience. “What’s very important to me is I’m in a position right now where I can be a voice for other women,” she said. “When you see something like this happen to someone like me, at the highest level of the executive—if I don’t speak, no one will.”

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