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Pinterest Accused of Gender Bias in Suit by Former No. 2 Executive

SAN FRANCISCO — In April, Françoise Brougher, the chief operating officer of Pinterest and its top female executive, abruptly left the company with little explanation.

In a lawsuit filed on Tuesday, Ms. Brougher accused the $21 billion company, which makes virtual pinboards, of firing her after she complained about sexist treatment. In her suit, which was filed in San Francisco Superior Court, Ms. Brougher said she had been left out of important meetings, was given gendered feedback, was paid less than her male peers when she joined the company, and ultimately was let go for speaking up about it.

“Gender discrimination at the C-level suite may be a little more subtle, but it’s very insidious and real,” Ms. Brougher, 54, said in an interview. “When men speak out, they get rewarded. When women speak out, they get fired.”

Pinterest was reviewing the lawsuit, a company spokeswoman said. “Our employees are incredibly important to us,” she said, adding that the company was committed to advancing its culture so “all of our employees feel included and supported.” Pinterest is conducting an independent review regarding its culture, policies and practices, she added.

Ms. Brougher is one of the most prominent female tech executives to file a gender discrimination suit against her onetime employer since the venture capitalist Ellen Pao sued her firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, in 2012. The new lawsuit suggests that bias against women in Silicon Valley has persisted, even after tech’s culture of sexual harassment of female executives and entrepreneurs became part of the #MeToo movement.

Ms. Brougher’s lawsuit follows a gender discrimination lawsuit last month against Carta, a financial technology start-up, by its former vice president for marketing, Emily Kramer. Ms. Kramer accused Carta of paying her less than her male peers and said the company retaliated against her for speaking up about gender equality and diversity.

A Carta spokeswoman said, “Gender inequality in the workplace is a real and systemic problem, particularly in Silicon Valley, however, the allegations in this case are unfounded.”

ImageWhen Pinterest filed to go public in 2019, Ms. Brougher said she was not invited on the “road show” to talk to investors.
Credit…Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Ms. Brougher’s suit adds to the scrutiny of Pinterest, which has a large audience of female users. In recent months, the company, based in San Francisco, has also been criticized by some of its former Black employees over racial discrimination. In June, two of them, Ifeoma Ozoma and Aerica Shimizu Banks, tweeted about racist and sexist comments, pay inequities and retaliation they experienced at the company. They quit in May.

Ms. Brougher is well known in Silicon Valley. She previously led the business side of the financial technology company Square and worked in a variety of positions on Google’s advertising business. She joined Pinterest in 2018 as chief operating officer and was responsible for the company’s revenue, with roughly half of the 2,000 employees reporting to her.

When Pinterest filed to go public in 2019, Ms. Brougher learned that she was paid less than her male peers and that her equity grants were “backloaded,” meaning most of them vested after several years, while her executive male peers’ grants were not, according to the lawsuit. After complaining, her compensation was adjusted.

Ms. Brougher said she was not invited on the “road show” to talk to investors for Pinterest’s initial public offering. She was also not invited to board meetings after the company went public, though members of her team were sometimes invited to those meetings without her knowledge, the lawsuit said. (She was not a member of the board.)

Ms. Brougher described a culture of “constant exclusion,” where decisions were frequently made in unofficial capacities, or “the meeting after the meeting.”

“When you are brought in as a No. 2, you are expected to advise the C.E.O.,” she said. “But when you are not in the meeting where the decisions are made and don’t have the context, it makes your job harder.”

Credit…Anastasiia Sapon for The New York Times

Ms. Brougher said Pinterest’s chief financial officer, Todd Morgenfeld, asked her at one point, “What is your job anyway?” in front of peers, according to the lawsuit. Mr. Morgenfeld also offered Ms. Brougher formal feedback that she viewed as sexist, according to the lawsuit. When she confronted him about it on a video call, he raised his voice and hung up on her, the suit said.

Ben Silbermann, Pinterest’s chief executive, was dismissive of Ms. Brougher’s concerns about Mr. Morgenfeld, comparing it to a domestic dispute, according to the suit. Human resources treated the complaint as a legal matter, the suit said.

In April, soon after the heated conversation with Mr. Morgenfeld, Ms. Brougher was terminated, according to the suit.

“I was told I wasn’t collaborating enough,” she said. Pinterest asked her to announce that leaving was her decision and she declined, she said.

Ms. Brougher’s law firm, Rudy, Exelrod, Zieff & Lowe, also represented Ms. Pao.