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2021 Whistleblower of the Year Candidate - Ifeoma Ozoma

Posted  December 13, 2021

Pinterest might seem harmless, with its boards upon boards of dessert recipes and do-it-yourself rustic chic wedding favors. But, according to Ifeoma Ozoma, the tech company harbored a festering internal culture of racism and misogyny. While Ozoma blew the whistle in 2020, her experiences have lead her to become an advocate for whistleblowers.  For her whistleblowing and her continued advocacy, we nominate Ozuma as a candidate for 2021 Whistleblower of the Year.

Ozoma’s explosive tweets describing her experiences at Pinterest as a Black female employee shed light on Pinterest’s internal practices and sparked a larger conversation about how tech companies treat their workers. Ozoma told her story despite the non-disclosure agreement Pinterest had her sign when she left the company. Ozoma not only spoke out about Pinterest’s culture at great personal risk, but she has also led the charge to prevent the use of non-disclosure agreements to silence workers like her.

Ozoma worked at Pinterest as a Public Policy and Social Impact Manager. She excelled in her two years at the company, receiving two raises and a promotion. She worked on crucial issues, including stopping the spread of misinformation about vaccines. Her work on this subject even drew the attention of U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murphy, who applauded her by name in a tweet praising Pinterest’s decision to ban anti-vaccine propaganda back in 2019.

She also was behind Pinterest’s widely-lauded decision to stop promoting slave plantations as wedding venues. As Ozoma told NPR, however, Pinterest’s internal response to her stand against content promoting plantation weddings didn’t match its external publicity. At a performance review, Ozoma’s supervisor criticized her for not presenting the positive sides of publicizing plantations – sites of mass atrocity – as fun places to tie the knot. “I should have come up with the pros for promoting slave plantations. Like, to this day, I think about that, and the fact that it was put in writing — in a performance review that then impacted my pay,” Ozoma said. “Even though externally, the company really took advantage of the press that came with that decision.”

Despite her successes and high-profile role, Ozoma found out after a few months on the job that Pinterest had hired her at a “level” – basically, a tier of pay within the company org chart – drastically lower than that of a white male colleague doing similar work. So-called “misleveling” is a pernicious form of pay inequality, since level charts are not always public, and starting out at a lower pay level can decrease a worker’s earnings throughout their career. Even when an employee is promoted or given raises, as Ozoma was, that still does not catch her up to colleagues who started out on a higher level and get promoted from there.

As if it wasn’t enough that she felt baselessly criticized and underpaid, Ozoma faced a very dangerous situation when a white male colleague doxxed her. The colleague leaked information about Ozoma to right-wing news outlets, and soon Ozoma’s personal information was all over the internet. “My cell phone number, my full name, my photo, my email was shared all over the Internet,” Ozoma told NPR in an interview. “It was on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, the ‘chans,’ so 4chan and 8chan.”

Ozoma ultimately left Pinterest in May 2020. Soon after, she called out what she considered to be the hypocrisy of a Pinterest “Black Lives Matter” post in June 2020 in the wake of mass protests related to George Floyd’s murder. In a viral tweet thread, she explained how the company’s messaging rang hollow to her in light of the discriminatory treatment, unequal pay, and retaliation she felt at Pinterest. “After dealing with it for that long, then being doxxed, all while publicly representing the company and not being able to tell anyone about what was going on – to then see the absolutely hypocritical statement from them was incensing,” Ozoma complained in a Washington Post interview.

Ozoma knew that her decision to speak up came with legal risks. She had signed a non-disclosure agreement (known as an “NDA”) when she left Pinterest. Despite California’s protections for individuals who speak out about sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and sexual assault in violation of NDAs, under a law passed thanks to the #MeToo movement, there was no such protection for victims of racial discrimination. As Ozoma wrote in a NYT op-ed,  “only one part of my identity was protected, leaving me in a sort of legal limbo.” The need for a law that could address the intersectional nature of workplace harassment was clear.

Since Ozoma found that California’s laws did not protect her and others like her, she worked to change them. She teamed up with California state Sen. Connie Leyva to introduce the Silenced No More Act and successfully fight for its passage. The Act protects whistleblowers who break NDAs to report not just gender-based harassment and discrimination but also workplace discrimination and mistreatment on the basis of race, age, and other characteristics. As Whistleblower Insider pointed out, the Act is written broadly enough to protect a wide range of whistleblowers who would otherwise be hamstrung by the fear of penalties under NDAs. It has a catch-all provision that prohibits NDAs that restrict the disclosure of information about “unlawful acts in the workplace.”  California Government Code 12964.5.(a)(1)(B)(i). The Silenced No More Act is a crucial weapon in the fight against the widespread practice of employers using NDAs to gag workers and avoid responsibility for misconduct.

Beyond the change she inspired in California law – a change we hope will be a model for other states – Ozoma’s advocacy has had many other ripple effects. After her revelations, there was a wave of protests and lawsuits against Pinterest. Employees staged a virtual walk-out for equality in August 2020, and Pinterest settled a $50 million shareholder suit over discrimination within the company.

Ozoma also created a free online resource for potential whistleblowers called the Tech Worker Handbook, which she wrote in partnership with experts including Constantine Cannon attorneys Mary Inman and Leah Judge. The Handbook, which Ozoma calls “a resource guide for building and using a slingshot, there when needed for battle with a Goliath” provides crucial information for prospective whistleblowers to consider. Using insight from her own story and what she wished she had known from the start, the Handbook helps potential whistleblowers think through the legal, media, and security implications of coming forward.

For working tirelessly to “pay it forward” and empower other whistleblowers using her hard-won personal experience and her tech, policy and media know-how, we nominate Ifeoma Ozoma for Constantine Cannon’s 2021 Whistleblower of the Year.

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