Summary List PlacementThe thing that really ticked off Francoise Brougher about being fired from her job as Pinterest’s COO after being told she was not “collaborative” was that CEO Ben Silbermann knew she had a forthright personality before he hired her.
The former Pinterest COO just won a $22.5 million settlement in her gender discrimination suit after Silbermann complained about her communication style and manner at work and fired her, as she describes the termination.
But she told Business Insider in an interview shortly before the settlement that Silbermann talked with her for six months before finalizing her job offer.
And the company also put her through an array of personality assessments before the offer, she said.
“They were very thorough in my assessment,” she said. In addition to giving her some standardized skills and personality assessment tests. “I talked for eight hours to an evaluator that has a psychology background to understand who I was as a person.”
So they knew before the offer that she was an engineer by training and, by her own admission, a direct human being, who told it like she saw it.
“They knew everything about me. They got excited about this. They said, ‘wow, this is great,'” she said, adding she didn’t mind being put through her paces before offered a role with that much responsibility.
“But they didn’t understand the application of bringing in someone like me, that I was going to change the culture,” she said.
Initially, she felt they “loved” her style. Brougher had made a name for herself in tech for her eight years at Google as a vice president of global SMB ad sales, a $15 billion unit, and then a business lead at Square, with jobs at Charles Schwab and Booz, Allen before that. Her ethos was all about about efficiency and getting things done.
For instance, she immediately put a kibosh on Pinterest’s love of meetings and tried to introduce processes instead.
“I did this inventory of meetings. There were so many meetings, never with the same person and no decisions were made,” she recalls.
They gave her approach a name: “care with candor,” writing it into the company’s values, and making her the spokesperson for it. She was delighted. She thought this represented a change to the culture that meant people would be encouraged to respectfully express their opinions and include those who tended, in her view, to be overlooked.
But soon she observed some of the longtime employees beginning to resent the idea of processes instead of meetings because they couldn’t just go in to see Silbermann to lobby him for their projects.
As we previously reported, Pinterest had a well-crafted reputation as a friendly place to work, with a motto of “the last positive corner on the internet,” and recruiters were selling Pinterest to prospective employees as a nice company with down-to-earth founders whose mission is to help everyone “create a life they love.”
But multiple former employees told us the idea of niceness had become weaponized inside the company, as part of a toxic, chaotic culture where teams were pitted against one another. Speaking out was frowned upon and people at all levels lived in fear of being fired, they said. Brougher described the atmosphere as one of secrecy.
Brougher then became one of the most visible examples of someone pushed out.
Committee with her children
While the situation has a happy ending for Brougher this week with her case settled for a $22.5 million (her lawyer David Lowe, of Rudy Exelrod Zieff & Lowe, also represented Ellen Pao in a lawsuit against VC firm Kleiner Perkins), for much of 2020, her life was in upheaval.
“I’m a very private person,” she said. She has three kids, 20, 18, and 16 and “was trying to raise my kids as normally as possible.”
When she first decided to sue, and then write a blog post about her experience, her first thought was of them. She called a family meeting, told them the story and asked if they were ok if wrote about it.
“My kids, said, ‘Mom we don’t feel great about the way you were treated,'” she said, and they told her she had to tell the story, not for herself “but for others.”
Determined then to go public, with her kids well-armed for the potential fallout, she faced two more problems.
“I’m an engineer. I’m not a writer,” she laughs. She’s also not a native English speaker, and although she jokes about how people teased her for her accent, all of that left her with a big case of nerves on how to write the most important memo of her life.
But she did. And it went instantly viral. Over 180,000 people read it. It made national news. “My life has changed tremendously,” she said. On the downside, because of it, the lawsuit and the pandemic, job offers were not exactly pouring in, she said.
While she got a share of hateful comments, “the great part of it” was “people that worked with me 10, 20, 30 years ago, contacted me.” Long-ago friends got back in touch. And over half a dozen women reached out to her to share similar stories from the company, she said.
Many thanked her for speaking out.
When she wrote the post, “it was very important to me to strike the right tone,” she said, and to show “discrimination at the highest level still exists, and I wanted to give them a mental image of gender bias. I want to show you what it is, what it looks like.”
This ranged from discovering her stock option package had a different vesting schedule than her male peers to being disinvited to meetings after she pointed out problems with some advertiser support systems.
Formerly praised for “candor with care,” she was then labeled “uncooperative,” she said. The issues culminated with another executive shouting at her, she said, and being fired.
Now that the suit is settled, Brougher is happy she spoke out.
“It feels great to know I fought hard in the lawsuit and I accomplished my objective to make sure my message was heard for myself and other women. This lawsuit was always about creating meaningful change, but also about accountability. I will continue to tell my story and add my voice, along with other women, to raise awareness on gender discrimination in the workplace,” she said in an emailed statement to Business Insider.
Pinterest says, “Pinterest recognizes the importance of fostering a workplace environment that is diverse, equitable and inclusive and will continue its actions to improve its culture.”
The ‘sickening’ silence
But not everyone is cheering Brougher’s massive settlement. One of them who was “livid” was Timnit Gebru, the top AI researcher whose firing from Google set off a firestorm earlier this month.
Gebru noticed that the giant settlement Brougher received was many magnitudes more than what two Black women employees at Pinterest were offered after coming out earlier this year with allegations of discrimination against the company. As Business Insider previously reported, the initial whistleblowing on Pinterest came from two Black women, Ifeoma Ozoma and Aerica Shimizu Banks, who publicly announced in June that they had quit Pinterest, after months of lobbying for better pay. Business Insider also spoke to 11 former employees, several of them Black, who denounced what they described as a toxic company culture.
Brougher had been fired from Pinterest before the two women spoke out, but Brougher did not announce her lawsuit, or publish her blog post, until after the two women came forward. So on Monday, when news of Brougher’s settlement broke, Gebru tweeted that Ozoma and Banks left with a settlement that was a tiny fraction of Brougher’s.
“I. Am. Livid. Two Black women, @IfeomaOzoma and @erikashimizu, risk everything. They go public giving the COO the ability to then tell her story. Pinterest settles with COO for $22.5 million. And they got LESS THAN A YEAR’S SEVERANCE?”
She also tweeted, “Its like tech companies are literally trying to figure out how many ways to tell Black women that they are discardable objects.”
Banks, who was also a former Google alum, tweeted in response, “We hear them loud and clear.”
And Ifeoma Ozoma tweeted, “That’s what’s both vindicating and also sickening. So many people see it and @Pinterest leadership still does not care.”
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