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Dark clouds envelop feel-good Pinterest

Pinterest set out to be a bright spot in cutthroat Silicon Valley, but now stands to see its reputation forever tarnished by allegations of mistreatment and a toxic culture by women who held senior roles at the company.

Why it matters: Even a company known for progressive policy decisions and successfully combatting hateful and otherwise problematic content isn't immune to the systemic problems that have plagued many tech companies.

Driving the news: Former Pinterest COO Francoise Brougher is suing the company for, she says, firing her in retaliation for speaking up about perceived gender bias.

  • Brougher, formerly of Square and Google, learned she was paid less than male colleagues and that her equity grants were treated differently, she wrote in a Medium post Tuesday detailing her experience of being fired.
"According to Pinterest, I was fired not for the results I achieved, but for not being 'collaborative.' I believe that I was fired for speaking out about the rampant discrimination, hostile work environment, and misogyny that permeates Pinterest. "What happened to me at Pinterest reflects a pattern of discrimination and exclusion that many female executives experience, not only in the tech industry but throughout corporate America."
Brougher, on Medium

Context: Brougher's public reveal of her Pinterest saga comes after Ifeoma Ozoma and Aerica Shimizu Banks left the company in May. Ozoma and Shimizu Banks, who are Black, shared in detail their experiences of racist and sexist comments from co-workers, unequal pay and pushback for speaking out.

What they're saying: "It is shocking how closely the experiences Francoise detailed compared to mine when you consider her seniority, leadership and wealth of experience," Shimizu Banks, who had been Pinterest's first Washington, D.C.-based employee as public policy and social impact manager, told Axios.

  • Brougher's accomplishments didn't shield her from having her gender used against her when she raised questions about the status quo, said Shimizu Banks: "This is how sexism at Pinterest works."
  • Emails reviewed by Axios that Silbermann sent to staff after Ozoma and Shimizu Banks went public with their allegations show the CEO wrote that "investigations found we treated these employees fairly." In an email Silbermann sent to staff after Brougher’s post, he did not dismiss her claims.

Some former employees are now calling for for Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann to step down. One former Pinterest employee told Axios reading Brougher's post was "triggering."

  • "Anyone who has worked at Pinterest knows that culture starts from the top with Ben which is reinforced by his small band of male cronies," the former employee, who asked not to be named in fear of retaliation, told Axios. "For too long, Ben has claimed to not understand what's going on at his own company. The time is up for Ben Silbermann."

The other side: "We remain committed to advancing our culture to ensure that Pinterest is a place where all of our employees feel included and supported, which is why there is an ongoing independent review regarding our culture, policies, and practices," said a Pinterest spokesperson, adding that the company is reviewing Brougher's complaint and takes "all concerns brought to our attention seriously."

Flashback: Pinterest announced at the end of June that law firm WilmerHale would be conducting an independent review of its workplace culture. Lawyers from WilmerHale are working at the direction of a special committee of Pinterest’s board.

  • "Pinterest should take action against the individuals who discriminated against us, not keep pointing to a culture review being done on behalf of four members of the board," Ozoma said.
  • In 2015, Pinterest publicly announced efforts to increase its diversity.

The bottom line: Unlike many Silicon Valley rivals, Pinterest has been able to avoid scandal and maintain a low profile, even as it has grown to boast about 2,000 employees and 400 million monthly users, at a current market capitalization of around $21 billion.

  • But as more employees speak out, the company is beginning to get a taste of the public scrutiny that so many other big social networks grapple with daily.

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