A technical whistleblower helps others speak up

A technical whistleblower helps others speak up

Last month, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed an act to expand protection for people who speak up about discrimination in the workplace.

A new website has been created to provide advice to technicians on how to report abuse by their employers.

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Last month, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed an act to expand protection for people who speak up about discrimination in the workplace.

A new website has been created to provide advice to technicians on how to report abuse by their employers.

And ple responded to a shareholder proposal asking it to evaluate how it used confidentiality agreements in cases of harassment and discrimination against employees.

The different developments had one thing – or rather, one person – in common: Ifeoma Ozoma.

Since last year, Ozoma, 29, a former employee of Pinterest, Facebook and Google, has become a central figure among tech whistleblowers. A Yale-educated daughter of Nigerian immigrants, she has supported and mentored tech workers who needed help to speak up, pushed for more legal protection for those workers, and urged tech companies and their shareholders to change their whistleblower policies.

She helped inspire and pass California’s new Silenced No More Act, which bans companies from using nondisclosure agreements to repress workers who speak out against discrimination in any form. Ozoma also published a website, The Tech Worker Handbook, which provides information on whether and how workers should whistle.

“It’s really sad to me that we still have so little responsibility in the technology industry that individuals have to do it,” Ozoma said in an interview.

Their efforts – which alienated at least one ally along the way – are increasingly in the spotlight as recalcitrant tech workers take more action against their employers. Last month, Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee, announced that she had leaked thousands of internal documents about the damage to the social network. (Facebook has since changed its name to Meta.) Employees have also faced civil unrest recently, with many workers raising concerns about verbal abuse, sexual harassment, retaliation, and discrimination.

Ozoma is now focused on directing tech companies to stop using nondisclosure agreements to prevent employees from speaking up about discrimination in the workplace. She has also met with activists and organizations seeking to pass laws similar to the Silenced No More Act elsewhere. And she is in constant contact with other activist tech staff, including those who organized against google and ple.

Much of Ozoma’s work is based on experience. In June 2020, she and a colleague, Aerica Shimizu Banks, publicly accused her former employer, the virtual pin board manufacturer Pinterest, of racism and sexism. Pinterest initially denied the allegations, but later apologized for its workplace culture. The workers organized a strike and a former executive sued the company for gender discrimination.

“It’s remarkable how Ifeoma went through some very painful experiences, developed solutions for them, and then built a movement to turn those solutions into reality,” said John Tye, founder of Whistleblower Aid, a nonprofit that serves whistleblowers provides legal support.

He and Ozoma recently attended a webinar to educate people about the rights of whistleblowers.

Meredith Whittaker, a former Google employee who helped organize a strike against the company’s sexual harassment policy in 2018, added to Ozoma, “She stayed and worked to help others blow the whistle safer . “

Ozoma, who grew up in Anchorage, Alaska and Raleigh, North Carolina, became an activist after a five-year career in the technology industry. She studied Political Science and moved to Washington, DC in 2015 to join Google for Government Relations. She then worked at Facebook in Silicon Valley in the field of international politics.

In 2018 Pinterest recruited Ozoma to its public policy team. There she helped get Banks on board. They led policy decisions including ending advertising anti-vaccination information and content related to plantation weddings on Pinterest, Ozoma said.

However, Ozoma and Banks said they faced unequal pay, racist comment and retaliation for filing complaints on Pinterest. They left the company in May 2020. A month later, during the protests against Black Lives Matter, Pinterest released a statement in support of its black employees.

Ozoma and Banks said Pinterest’s hypocrisy led them to speak out. They shared their experiences as black women in the company on Twitter, with Ozoma explaining that Pinterest’s statement was “a joke”.

In a statement, Pinterest said it had taken steps to increase diversity.

Ozoma and Banks took a risk by speaking up. That’s because they broke the nondisclosure agreements they signed with Pinterest when they left the company. California law, which provided partial protection, did not cover anyone speaking up about racial discrimination.

Her attorney, Peter Rukin, said he had an idea: what if state law was expanded to ban nondisclosure agreements that prevent people from speaking up about discrimination in the workplace? Ozoma and Banks soon began working on a bill with California Senator Connie Leyva, a Democrat, to do just that. It was introduced in February.

“I’m just so proud of these women that they came forward,” said Levya.

On the way, Ozoma and Banks fell out. Banks said she stopped speaking to Ozoma because Ozoma recruited her on Pinterest without disclosing the discrimination there and then banned her from working on the Silenced No More Act.

“Ifeoma then tore me off the initiative by gaslighting and bullying,” said Banks.

Ozoma said she did not exclude Banks from the organization. She added that Banks “felt left out” because the coverage was focused on Ozoma’s role.

Since leaving Pinterest, Ozoma has moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she lives with a flock of chickens she calls the Golden Girls. She also runs a technology equity consultancy, Earthseed.

Through Earthseed, Ozoma continues its work around whistleblowing. She works with the nonprofit Open MIC and consulting firm Whistle Stop Cital to stop tech companies from using nondisclosure agreements to discourage workers from discriminating.

In September, Ozoma, Whistle Stop Cital and Open MIC, together with social impact investor Nia Impact Cital, submitted a shareholder proposal. The proposal asked the company to assess the risks associated with using obfuscation clauses on employees who have experienced harassment and discrimination.

Last month, ple said in a letter it would not take action on the proposal, arguing that the company “does not restrict the ability of employees and contractors to speak freely about harassment, discrimination and other illegal activities in the workplace.” It declined to comment beyond the letter.

Ozoma also supports and advises other tech activists. The Tech Worker Handbook website was designed in part to help with this. The website contains information on how to deal with nondisclosure agreements and how to protect yourself from corporate surveillance or physical threats. At the top of the page is a slogan: “Prepare is Power”. The site has had over 53,000 visitors since it went online on October 6, Ozoma said.

“I’m sending it to people who are considering getting in touch,” said Ashley Gjovik, a former ple activist who has relied on Ozoma for support. When people think about whistleblowing, she adds, “Your thoughts are not going to go to the places of the personal, digital, security stuff, all the legal ramifications of how to get this story out in the first place, the effects on friends and family, the Effects on your mental health. “

Last month, Ozoma also received a call from Cher Scarlett, another activist who left the company this month. (Scarlett declined to give her real name for security reasons; she legally changes her name to Cher Scarlett.) She asked Ozoma how she could pass laws like the Silenced No More Act in her home state, Washington.

Ozoma described the steps she had taken, including working closely with a lawmaker who could write a bill, Scarlett said.

Scarlett then, along with another tech activist, contacted Karen Keizer, a Washington state senator and Democrat. Keizer now plans to support a bill to expand whistleblower protection when the legislature begins in January, her office said.

“That’s why the network of whistleblowers and women like Ifeoma is so important,” said Scarlett.