What HR needs to know about Pinterest’s $20M settlement

The large, public settlement could be a bellwether for how other companies address diversity.
By: | December 16, 2020 • 3 min read
(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A legal settlement announced this week involving a Silicon Valley giant has made waves in the fight against gender discrimination in the workplace.

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The $22.5 million settlement between social media platform Pinterest and a former female executive was announced Monday. As part of the agreement, Pinterest admitted no liability in the case brought against it by its former COO, Françoise Brougher, who alleged ongoing sexist treatment during her two years with the organization. She was terminated this spring, a move Brougher contended stemmed from her outspoken criticism of the company’s culture; she filed suit in August. Several more former employees have since gone public with complaints of rampant racism, sexism and retaliation at Pinterest.

According to the New York Times, hundreds of Pinterest employees staged a virtual walkout this summer to protest the alleged treatment of Brougher and others. Since then, the organization committed to investigate the claims, diversified its board and made salary information more transparent, among other actions.

In the Times story, Brougher said she hopes this week’s settlement will continue to encourage culture change at Pinterest. As part of the deal, the company and Brougher will jointly donate $2.5 million toward causes supporting women and minorities in tech.

“My goal was about accountability and driving change,” Brougher said. “Sharing the settlement publicly helps raise awareness more broadly.”

It could also prompt change at other employers, particularly those in Silicon Valley. Brougher is among the most high-profile—and high-ranking—former execs to raise a claim about gender discrimination at a tech company; that Pinterest settled, instead of fighting the allegations, as well as the significant payout, are also noteworthy.

Vargas Townsend

“The tech industry has been waiting for someone like Ms. Brougher, who was willing to forgo the NDA and fight the fight for change, in the public eye,” says Lorraine Vargas Townsend, chief people officer at A Cloud Guru, which provides online IT training. “The wave might have begun with #MeToo, but 2021 is going to be a year of reckoning, and this settlement is a solid step in the right direction.”

Concerns about discrimination and a lack of diversity in Silicon Valley are nothing new, adds HR consultant Ted Childs, former vice president of global workforce diversity at IBM Corp.

High-growth start-ups are often helmed by young men focused on getting the business off the ground—not the realities of managing a workforce.

“The boys were found with their pants down,” Childs says about the situation at Pinterest. “The only reason you pay that much money is because you sit in a room and somebody says, ‘We better make this go away.’ ”

But the public nature of the settlement is ensuring that’s not happening.

“Hell, yes,” Childs says when asked if the Pinterest settlement will have reverberations. “I think even big companies will take a look at this because things are changing.”

So, what do companies do to avoid a controversy like that at Pinterest? In tech and elsewhere, company culture is set from the top—usually by a mostly male team of executives—and supported by HR, legal and the board of directors. Too often, companies seeking to change their culture may place that burden on one of the few female or diverse C-suite employees or board members, which Vargas Townsend says is a mistake.

See also: This CHRO wants to change the face of HR in the tech industry

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Instead, she offers a few suggestions for creating authentic, and sustainable, culture change from the top ranks of the company.

First, leaders need to stop making decisions in the men’s room—literally and figuratively. The “meeting after the meeting” is also a common place, where executives have important, and potentially exclusionary, conversations—so don’t allow them, she says.

Promoting the idea that actions should always be assumed to have had a “positive intent” can actually be a way to silence and gaslight employees who have real claims, so such approaches should be avoided. Gendered feedback and physical intimidation should not be tolerated. And executive pay decisions must be transparent—they will usually be found out anyway, Vargas Townsend notes.

Essentially, she says, fostering change from the top boils down to one important guidepost: “Don’t apply a second set of rules for your female executives.”

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Editor Elizabeth Clarke contributed to this story.

Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.