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 Apple responded to a shareholder proposal asking it to evaluate how it uses confidentiality agreements in employee harassment and discrimination cases.
The different developments had one thing – or rather, one person – in common: Ifeoma Ozoma.
Since last year, Ms. Ozoma, 29, a former employee of Pinterest, Facebook and Google, has become a central figure among tech whistleblowers. The Yale-trained Nigerian immigrant daughter has supported and mentored tech workers who needed help to speak up, pressed 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. Ms. 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,” Ms. 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.) Apple has also recently faced unrest among its employees, with many employees expressing concerns about verbal abuse, sexual harassment, retaliation, and discrimination.
Ms. 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 employees, including those who have organized against Google and Apple.
Much of Ms. 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 Ms. Ozoma recently appeared on a webinar to educate people about the rights of whistleblowers.
Meredith Whittaker, a former Google employee who staged a strike in 2018 over the company’s sexual harassment policy, added from Ms. Ozoma, “She stayed here and worked to help others blow the whistle safer.”
Ms. Ozoma, who grew up in Anchorage and Raleigh, NC, 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 Ms. Ozoma to its public policy team. There she helped get Ms. Banks on board. They led policy decisions, including ending advertising anti-vaccination information and content related to plantation weddings on Pinterest, Ms. Ozoma said.
However, Ms. Ozoma and Ms. 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.
Ms. Ozoma and Ms. Banks said Pinterest’s hypocrisy led them to speak out. They shared their experiences as black women in the company on Twitter, with Ms. Ozoma explaining that Pinterest’s statement was “a joke”.
In a statement, Pinterest said it had taken steps to increase diversity. On Wednesday, the company settled a shareholder lawsuit over its workplace culture and pledged $ 50 million for diversity and inclusion efforts.
In speaking up, Ms. Ozoma and Ms. Banks were taking a risk. 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? Ms. Ozoma and Ms. Banks soon began working with California State Senator Connie Leyva, a Democrat, on a bill to do just that. It was introduced in February.
“I’m just so proud of these women that they got in touch,” said Ms. Levya.
Ms. Ozoma and Ms. Banks dropped out along the way. Ms. Banks said she stopped speaking to Ms. Ozoma because Ms. Ozoma recruited her on Pinterest without disclosing the discrimination there and then banned her from working on the Silenced No More Act.
Understand the Facebook Papers
Map 1 of 6
A tech giant in trouble. The leak of internal documents by a former Facebook employee has given an intimate glimpse into the operations of the secret social media company and again made calls for better regulation of the company’s wide reach in the lives of its users.
The whistleblower. During an interview with “60 Minutes,” which aired October 3, Frances Haugen, a Facebook product manager who left the company in May, announced that she was responsible for the leakage of these internal documents.
Statement by Ms. Haugen in Congress. On October 5, Ms. Haugen testified before a Senate subcommittee, saying that Facebook was ready to use hateful and harmful content on its website to get users to come back. Facebook managers, including Mark Zuckerberg, called their allegations untrue.
The Facebook papers. Ms. Haugen also filed a complaint with the Securities and Exchange Commission and made the documents available to Congress in edited form. A member of Congress then delivered the documents known as the Facebook Papers to several news organizations, including the New York Times.
“Ifeoma then tore me off the initiative through gaslighting and bullying,” said Ms. Banks.
Ms. Ozoma said she had not excluded Ms. Banks from the organization. She added that Ms. Banks “felt marginalized” because the reporting focused on Ms. Ozoma’s role.
Since leaving Pinterest, Ms. Ozoma has moved to Santa Fe, NM, where she lives with a flock of chickens she calls the Golden Girls. She also runs a technology equity consultancy, Earthseed.
Through Earthseed, Ms. Ozoma continues her whistleblowing work. She works with the nonprofit Open MIC and consulting firm Whistle Stop Capital to deter technology companies from using nondisclosure agreements to discourage workers from discriminating.
In September, Ms. Ozoma, Whistle Stop Capital and Open MIC, along with social impact investor Nia Impact Capital, submitted a shareholder proposal to Apple. The proposal asked the company to assess the risks associated with using obfuscation clauses on employees who have experienced harassment and discrimination.
Last month, Apple said in a letter it would not take action on the proposal, arguing that the company “is not restricting 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.
Ms. 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, Ms. Ozoma said.
“I’m sending it to people who are considering getting in touch,” said Ashley Gjovik, a former Apple activist who has relied on Ms. 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 getting this story out in the first place, the effects on friends and family, the Effects 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 legally changes her name to Cher Scarlett.) She asked Ms. Ozoma how she could pass laws like the Silenced No More Act in her home state, Washington.
Ms. Ozoma described the steps she had taken, including working closely with a lawmaker who could write a bill, Ms. Scarlett said.
Along with another tech activist, Ms. Scarlett then contacted Karen Keizer, a Washington state senator and Democrat. Ms. Keizer is now planning to support a bill to expand whistleblower protection at the beginning of the legislative period in January, her office said.
“That’s why the network of whistleblowers and women like Ifeoma is so important,” said Scarlett.