Why Don’t We Hear About Gender Discrimination in CA Tech Companies

Françoise Brougher was excited to accept her new role as Chief Operating Officer at Pinterest in 2018. As COO, Françoise was in a critical and influential position at the popular digital scrapbooking company — around 70% of whose users are women. 

When she joined Pinterest, though, Françoise was shocked to encounter hostility, misogyny, and unequal compensation at the top of the enterprise.

After two years of struggling to work around demeaning comments and sexist behavior from her executive colleagues, Françoise was stunned to learn that she’d been terminated from the company in April 2020.

This happened not long after raising a complaint about the hostile and discriminatory treatment she’d been subject to.

Unfortunately, Françoise’s experience of gender discrimination in Silicon Valley is not unique or new. What stands out about her story, though, is the outcome.

In 2020, Pinterest agreed to pay Françoise a record-breaking $22.5 million to settle her suit against the company for sex discrimination, wrongful termination, and retaliation. 

In a statement that same year, Françoise wrote that her suit was motivated not only out of a desire to seek justice for herself, but also on behalf of all other women who are excluded and marginalized under the “boys’ club” culture in the tech industry. 

In this blog post, we’ll break down three legal reasons that illegal gender bias is still widespread in the tech industry.

We will also outline what laws protect California employees from discrimination on the basis of gender, and explain when to contact an employment attorney if you think you’ve been the target of workplace discrimination. 

If you have questions, please contact our employment attorneys online or call (866) 442-6755.

3 Reasons Gender Discrimination Is Still Overlooked In Tech

Subtle Forms of Discrimination Are Easy to Overlook or Minimize

When we talk about workplace gender discrimination, we often imagine the kind of extreme and blatant forms of sexism that were more widespread in the 20th century.

Like, women are called derogatory names, misogynist jokes are commonplace, female workers are relegated to getting coffee and running errands for male executives.  

But gender discrimination can take a variety of forms, some of which are far less overt, but which can be just as damaging to an employee’s opportunities. 

Take, for example, unfair disparities in salaried pay or benefits given to employees by gender. When Françoise was hired, she assumed she was offered the standard benefits package offered to all other C-suite executives at Pinterest.

But it was only after looking at the company’s IPO filing in 2019 that she learned her male coworkers had received more favorable equity compensation packages than she had.

Gender discrimination can also appear in other forms in the workplace as a subtle form of sabotage through exclusion.

As one of few women in the upper echelons of Pinterest, Françoise reported that she was routinely excluded from critical meetings and decision-making that were part and parcel of the COO’s role, from board meetings to the company’s post-IPO announcement programming. 

Some interpersonal conflict is a normal part of work. But when an employee(s) is marginalized, undermined, or held to different standards because of their gender, that’s a red flag.

For Françoise, when certain coworkers’ disrespectful behavior included increasingly gendered comments, she began to see more clearly that the hostile work environment she’d experienced wasn’t just unpleasant — it was unlawful.

Unfortunately, when discrimination is subtle, it can be easy to overlook or write off as simple interpersonal disagreement. 

Fear of Backlash or Employer Retaliation for Speaking Out.

Concerns about the consequences of calling out sexist behavior at work are another big reason that gender discrimination goes unreported and overlooked.

When someone is a minority (in gender, race, ethnicity, etc.) in their workplace, it can be intimidating to speak out against bad behavior — especially if it’s become a normal and accepted part of the work environment.

Unfortunately, these fears are often reasonable. In April 2020, after speaking out multiple times about the compensation disparity and demeaning treatment she experienced compared to her male colleagues in Pinterest’s C-suite, Françoise was unexpectedly fired.

Replacing her in the role, she was shocked to discover, was the colleague who’d been the most aggressive and disparaging.

On top of that, Françoise was also instructed to lie to her team about her departure, telling them she was leaving voluntarily instead of being terminated.

This kind of employer retaliation — punishing employees for speaking out about discriminatory treatment — is illegal.

Under California and federal law, employees are protected from backlash by an employer when they speak up about discrimination, harassment, or any other kind of behavior that violates state Labor Code or federal law. 

Illegal employer retaliation isn’t limited to firing. The law prohibits any kind of adverse action taken against an employee for reporting unlawful behavior in the workplace, including the threat of firing, demotion, cutting them out of projects or communications, etc.

But although retaliation poses additional legal consequences for employers under California and federal law, the fear of immediate consequences is often enough to silence employees who would otherwise speak out about discrimination.

Discrimination Suits and Settlements are Often Handled Out of the Public Eye.

The historic settlement that Pinterest agreed to pay in this case is not just exceptional for the size of the award — the largest ever publicly announced settlement for individual gender discrimination at the time — but for the public coverage of the outcome.

When these kinds of discrimination lawsuits arise, they’re often handled in private, through arbitration or closed settlement negotiations.

High-profile companies with broad name recognition — like Pinterest — prefer to keep allegations of bad behavior out of public view.

The result: When someone does call them out for discrimination, a company pays for the wrongdoing behind closed doors, but isn’t held accountable for making changes internally to change their culture or fix the toxic environment.

What Should I Do If My Company Is Discriminating Against Me Based On My Gender?

First, know your rights. Under California’s Fair Housing and Employment Act (FEHA), employers have the responsibility to provide a workplace free of differential or adverse treatment of individuals based on certain protected characteristics, including gender, pregnancy status, age, race, religion, or disability.

When it comes to gender discrimination, California state and federal law doesn’t just protect women: any person of any gender can experience unlawful sex discrimination if they receive detrimental and different treatment specifically because of their gender.

If your employer fails to protect you from harassment based on one of these features of your background or identity — or if they take adverse action against you because of it — your right to equal employment opportunities has been violated, and you can hold your employer accountable under California law.

It’s also a good idea to lodge a written complaint with your employer about the discrimination you’re experiencing.

Follow the procedure in their employee manual, and keep documentation of their response and any action taken to rectify the situation.

Get in touch with an employment lawyer. Seeking restitution for sex discrimination can be intimidating. It’s helpful to consult with an employment attorney who can evaluate your situation, answer your questions, and guide you on the path to move forward to getting the accountability you deserve. 

An advocate familiar with the ins and outs of federal, state, and local laws can guide you through the procedures for reporting claims and preparing documentation needed to get as much restitution as possible.

Ottinger Employment Lawyers has been helping California employees who’ve suffered discrimination of all kinds — sex, race, disability, pregnancy — win legal restitution for over twenty years.

If you work in California and have experienced discrimination or an unlawful termination, reach out to our team today to speak with an experienced attorney about how we can help you.

Author Photo

Robert Ottinger, Esq.

Robert Ottinger is an employment attorney who focuses on representing executives and employees in employment disputes. Before starting his firm, Robert slugged it out in courtrooms trying cases for the government. Robert served as a Deputy Attorney General for the California Department of Justice in Los Angeles and then as Assistant Attorney General for the New York Attorney General’s Office in Manhattan.

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