A Tech Whistle-Blower Helps Others Speak Out

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Last month, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed an invoice expand protection for people who talk about discrimination in the workplace.

A new website arrived to advise technicians on how to report abuse by employers.

And Apple responded to a shareholder proposal asking to evaluate how it uses confidentiality agreements in employee harassment and discrimination cases.

Scattered developments had one thing in common – or rather, a person: Ifeoma Ozoma.

Since last year, 29-year-old Ms. Ozoma, a former employee of Pinterest, Facebook and Google, has become a central figure among those exposing information. The daughter of Nigerian immigrants, educated at Yale University, she supported and mentored technical workers who needed help speaking out, pushed for stronger legal protections for these employees, and encouraged tech companies and their shareholders to change their whistle-blower policies.

She helped inspire and pass a new California law, the Prohibition of Silence Act, which prohibits companies from using non-disclosure agreements to suppress workers who oppose discrimination in any form. Ms Ozoma also released The Tech Worker Handbook website, which provides information on whether workers should blow their whistle and how to do it.

“I’m really sad that we still have such a lack of accountability in the tech industry that people are forced to do it,” Ms Ozoma said in an interview.

Her efforts – which have alienated at least one ally – are increasingly in the spotlight as restless tech workers take more action against their employers. Last month, Francis HaugenA former Facebook employee said that she leaked thousands of internal documents about the dangers of the social network. (Facebook has since renamed itself Meta.) Apple also recently faced employee unrest, many employees express concerns about verbal abuse, sexual harassment, retribution and discrimination.

Ms Ozoma is now focused on directly pushing tech companies to stop using non-disclosure agreements so that employees don’t talk about discrimination in the workplace. She also met with activists and organizations who want to pass legislation similar to the Prohibition of Silence Law elsewhere. And she is in constant contact with other technology activists, including those who organized against Google and Apple.

Much of Ms. Ozoma’s work is based on experience. In June 2020, she and her colleague Aerika Shimizu Banks publicly accused their former employer, a Pinterest board maker, of racism and sexism. Pinterest initially denied the allegations but later apologized for its corporate culture. His workers went on strike, and former executive sued company on gender discrimination.

“It’s remarkable how Ifeoma went through a very painful experience, developed solutions for them, and then created a movement to make those decisions a reality,” said John Tai, founder of Whistleblower Aid, a nonprofit that provides legal support to whistleblowers. He and Ms Ozoma recently appeared on webinar inform people about the rights of whistleblowers.

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

Ms. Ozoma, who grew up in Anchorage and Raleigh, North Carolina, became an activist after a five-year high-tech career. With a degree in political science, she moved to Washington, DC in 2015 to join Google for government relations. She then worked at Facebook in Silicon Valley on international politics.

In 2018, Pinterest hired Ms Ozoma to join its public policy team. There she helped bring Miss Banks on board. They spearheaded political decisions, including stopping promotion vaccination information and plantation wedding content on Pinterest, Ms Ozoma said.

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

Ms Ozoma and Ms Banks said Pinterest’s hypocrisy made them speak out. On Twitter they revealed his experience as black women in the company, and Ms Ozoma said Pinterest’s announcement was a “joke.”

In a statement, Pinterest says it has taken steps to increase diversity. On Wednesday, the company settled a shareholder lawsuit over corporate culture and pledged $ 50 million to support diversity and inclusion.

After speaking out, Miss Ozoma and Miss Banks took the risk. This is because they violated the non-disclosure agreements they signed with Pinterest when they left the company. California law, which offered only partial protection, does not apply to people who speak of racial discrimination.

Peter Rukin, their attorney, said he had an idea: what if state law was expanded to prohibit non-disclosure agreements to prevent people from talking about any discrimination in the workplace? Soon, Ms Ozoma and Ms Banks began working with California Senator Connie Leyva, a Democrat, on a bill to do so. It was introduced in February.

“I am so proud of these women for coming forward,” said Ms. Levia.

On the way, Miss Ozoma and Miss Banks had a falling out. Ms Banks said she no longer spoke to Ms Ozoma because Ms Ozoma recruited her to Pinterest without disclosing discrimination there and then removed her from working on the Silence Law.

“Then Ifeoma dropped me from the initiative due to gaslighting and bullying,” Ms Banks said.

Ms Ozoma said she did not expel Ms Banks from the organization. She added that Ms. Banks “felt left out” because the news was covering the role of Ms. Ozoma.

After leaving Pinterest, Ms. Ozoma moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she lives with a herd of chickens, which she calls Golden Girls. She also runs the consulting firm Earthseed.

Through Earthseed, Ms. Ozoma continues her work to expose. She has partnered with the nonprofit Open MIC and consulting firm Whistle Stop Capital to stop tech companies from using non-disclosure agreements to keep employees from opposing discrimination.

In September, Ms Ozoma, Whistle Stop Capital and Open MIC, along with social impact investor Nia Impact Capital, submitted an offer to Apple’s shareholder. The proposal asked the company to assess the risks associated with the use of information withholding provisions for employees subjected to harassment and discrimination.

Apple said in a letter last month that 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.” He declined to comment outside the scope of the letter.

Ms Ozoma also supports and advises other tech activists. The Tech Worker Handbook website was designed in part to help with this. The website has information on how to navigate non-disclosure agreements and how to defend against corporate surveillance or physical threats. At the top of the site is the slogan: “Readiness is power.” More than 53,000 people have visited it since it launched on October 6, Ms. Ozoma said.

“I send it to people who are thinking about giving a talk,” said Ashley Jovik, a former Apple activist who looked forward to Ms. Ozoma’s support. When people think about exposure, she added, “their thoughts are oblivious to personal, digital, security issues, all legal ramifications, how can you even tell this story, the impact on friends, etc. family, the impact on your mental health “.

Last month, Ms Ozoma also received a call from Cher Scarlett, another Apple activist who left the company this month. (Ms Scarlett declined to give her real name for security reasons; she is officially changing her name to Cher Scarlett.) She asked Ms Ozoma how laws such as the Prohibition of Silence Act could be passed in her home state of Washington.

Scarlett said Ms Ozoma described the steps she took, including working closely with a legislator who could write a bill.

Then, along with another technology activist, Ms. Scarlett contacted Karen Keizer, a Washington State Senator and Democrat. Ms. Keizer now plans to sponsor a bill to expand whistleblower protection when the legislature begins in January, her office said.

“This is why a network of whistleblowers and women like Ifeoma is so important,” Ms. Scarlett said.



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