The following article is a written adaptation of an episode of Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism, Slate’s new podcast about companies in the news and how they got there.
Pinterest isn’t supposed to be a website for women. There’s nothing inherently female about curating images on the internet. But women still constitute 70 percent of Pinterest’s user base, and the site has only gotten more female over time, in part because its algorithm is self-reinforcing. The more people who come to Pinterest looking for so-called female content, the more Pinterest prioritizes that kind of content, and the cycle continues.
But there’s another reason: Pinterest has a reputation for being one of the nicest corners of the internet. If you want a man to shout at you, you can go to Reddit or Twitter. But if you want to trade ideas for reindeer-themed cupcakes, or medium-length beach wave hairstyles, or DIY boho-style twinkle-light canopy beds, well, Pinterest is the place for you. When the pandemic started, and people began cutting their own hair and launching their own DIY home improvement projects and generally needing a website where by design doomscrolling just doesn’t exist, they increasingly found their way to Pinterest. Advertisers were also drawn to Pinterest’s cheerful content because users are more likely to form positive associations when the ads they see are surrounded by pretty pictures.
So it seems like a great business. Women love it. Advertisers love reaching those women. But Pinterest doesn’t seem satisfied.
Aerica Shimizu Banks, a former Pinterest employee, says the company leadership often took its predominantly female audience for granted: “Instead of honoring and celebrating that women were on the platform, and driving those very conditions that made it a more trustworthy platform, the emphasis was on ‘We have to appeal to men. We have to bring more men onto the platform.’ ” (In 2013, Slate’s Seth Stevenson reported on a slew of sites marketed as “Pinterests for Dudes,” with names like Manteresting, Dudepins, and Gentlemint.)
Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting different kinds of users to come to the platform you’ve built. It’s the only way to really grow as a company. But Banks believes that this was a narrow focus and that the fixation points to some of Pinterest’s broader problems—“whose voices were listened to, who we saw ascending into certain positions, who got to drive projects versus do the work for the projects.”
In 2018, Francoise Brougher became Pinterest’s first chief operating officer. In previous jobs, Brougher had boosted revenue for Google and helped oversee an initial public offering at Square. Her arrival was seen as a pretty clear sign that Pinterest was going to go public—which it did in April 2019.
Brougher successfully handled Pinterest’s IPO, but within a year she was no longer a Pinterest employee. And a few months after that, she filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against her former employer. Brougher claimed that even though she was the No. 2 executive at a company focused on women, she was intentionally left out of meetings, offered a different pay structure, and received gendered feedback about her work performance. The lawsuit also alleges that complaining about these things to human resources and to her boss, Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann, cost her her job. She was fired shortly after voicing some of these complaints. Brougher said in an interview with Bloomberg, “I realized fairly quickly that while I was given a seat at the table, I was not empowered to use my talent to drive Pinterest forward.” [Update, Dec. 16, 2020, at 12:30 p.m.: Brougher and Pinterest announced on Monday that they had reached a settlement of $22.5 million.]
Brougher’s lawsuit made headlines. Outwardly, Pinterest may have been centering women, but internally, even the female COO felt sidelined. And Brougher wasn’t the only employee to come forward with complaints against Pinterest this summer.
Ifeoma Ozoma was one of the first people hired to work on public policy for Pinterest, along with Aerica Shimizu Banks. Part of their job was to make sure that Pinterest could stay a nice, safe place on the internet even as it grew. Banks remembers that when she arrived at the company, it wasn’t clear what was and wasn’t allowed on Pinterest. The site had firm policies against things like pornography, but a lot of other content fell into a gray area. According to Banks, “there were no substantive, nuanced policies on content, on hate speech, on medical misinformation until Ifeoma joined. And the company was 10 years old when I joined. … These socially impactful, beneficial changes to protect users and to minimize harm did not occur until two Black women joined the team.”
The first big test of Pinterest’s content moderation policy came last year. Measles outbreaks were popping up all over the U.S., and Pinterest users were coming to the site looking for information about vaccines and treatments. In response, Pinterest wiped all that stuff from its platform. It wasn’t a medical site. It wasn’t designed to give people accurate information about vaccines, and it didn’t want to spread false information. And above all, it wanted to stay positive.
Ozoma was instrumental in formulating this policy. Internally, it was controversial. “There was pushback about what I was proposing,” she says, “until it was covered on the front page of the Wall Street Journal and then the WHO gave a shoutout to the company. And then the Washington Post editorial board also wrote a whole piece about how what we were doing, my work, was notable.”
Ozoma says this was a regular cycle: She would raise problems and catch flak from management, but her work ended up earning the company good press. This happened again when Pinterest was accused of romanticizing former slave plantations in wedding planning content. Ozoma said she brought the accusation to others at the company, asking what specific content policy changes they could make that would effectively make those kinds of images disappear. Again, she says she was met with pushback. But ultimately the changes were made, and again, Pinterest was commended for it widely in the press.
“I would be punished internally for what I was pushing and be called things that women are often called, like ‘not a team player,’ ‘aggressive’—a term specifically used for Black women,” Ozoma says. “But then the public praise would be the type of thing that Ben Silbermann, the CEO, would stand on the stage of an ad conference and talk about in order to get more advertisers.”
The final straw came when Ozoma’s personal information, including her cellphone number, was published online. The info was leaked by an engineer at Pinterest as part of a harassment campaign against Ozoma, who was looking into putting a content advisory on posts related to a right-wing journalist. Banks says that Pinterest handled the situation badly: “The company’s first question was ‘Well, why do you think they’re targeting you?’ Not ‘How do we better protect our employees?’ There was an investigation done internally, and surprise, surprise, no one was held accountable for anything, no one would do anything differently really, and everything’s fine.”
Banks thinks Pinterest is more accountable now that it’s a public company. “There is a real protection,” she says, “there is actually a greater potential for harms to be addressed, for a serious change to happen, when you’re at a place large enough where people care. Where people on the outside, where the public cares, and they are subject to public scrutiny. A lot of these practices are very opaque pre-IPO.”
Ozoma and Banks left Pinterest earlier this year. At first, they didn’t speak about their experiences at the company publicly. Then, after the murder of George Floyd, Pinterest released a public statement signed by Silbermann professing the company’s solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and pledging to take steps to support racial justice on the site and within the company. Silbermann wrote, “With everything we do, we will make it clear that our Black employees matter, Black Pinners and creators matter, and Black Lives Matter.” To Banks and Ozoma, those words rang hollow. So they decided to go public with their experiences on Twitter. Ozoma wrote, “As a Black woman, seeing Pinterest’s middle of the night ‘Black employees matter’ statement made me scratch my head after I just fought for over a full year to be paid and leveled fairly.”
Those tweets went viral and kicked off an unprecedented season of bad press for Pinterest. At first, the company issued a statement saying, “We took these issues seriously and conducted a thorough investigation when they were raised, and we’re confident both employees were treated fairly.” But when that wasn’t enough to put the issue to rest, the company changed tack. Its next statement said, “We never want anyone to feel the way Ifeoma and Aerica did while they were working at Pinterest.” Two months after those tweets were posted, Francoise Brougher filed her lawsuit. And more women have come forward with stories about their time at Pinterest. Working from home during the pandemic, employees staged a virtual walkout.
Since then, Pinterest has appointed its first Black female board member and pledged to get more diverse candidates into more senior-level positions. It also says it’s conducting reviews of company culture. A Pinterest spokesperson told us, “The leadership and employees at Pinterest have a shared goal of building and fostering a company that we can all be proud of. We’re committed to advancing our culture to ensure that Pinterest is a place where all our employees feel included and supported. We recognize that it’s our job to build a diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment for everyone at Pinterest.”