Medina Bardhi, the previous chief of staff to WeWork’s former CEO Adam Neumann, filed a complaint with the EEOC on October 31, claiming that she experienced pregnancy and gender discrimination at WeWork. The 24-page complaint is intended to become a class action lawsuit on behalf of other female employees who, the complaint alleges, also experienced gender discrimination and retaliation.
A spokesperson for WeWork did not return a request for comment. “WeWork intends to vigorously defend itself against this claim,” a spokesperson told BBC. “We have zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind.”
The lawsuit also affects The Wing, a women-focused coworking space that has prided itself on creating a supportive space for women. WeWork’s chief legal officer Jennifer Berrent is named as a defendant in the complaint. She is a board member at The Wing. It alleges that Berrent referred to Bardhi’s pregnancy and maternity leave as a “problem” that had to “be fixed.” It also claims that Neumann and Berrent demoted Bardhi after learning she was pregnant. “Conspicuously, the new hire, who was male and would have the same job scope and role as Ms. Bardhi, was offered an annual salary of $400,000 with a $175,000 signing bonus…far more than double the annual salary of $150,000 that Ms. Bardhi was being paid in the same job,” the complaint said.
“As the founders of a company whose mission is to advance women and as mothers ourselves, we find these allegations appalling,” The Wing’s CEO Audrey Gelman and COO Lauren Kassan said in a statement emailed to Forbes. WeWork led The Wing’s $32 million Series B funding round in 2017. WeWork’s withdrawn IPO filing showed that it owned 23% of The Wing. The filing said the stake was worth $58.8 million as of June 2019.
The complaint illustrates a pattern of gender discrimination that Bardhi allegedly faced throughout her more than five year tenure at WeWork, starting with her job interview in October 2013. The complaint says that Neumann asked her when she would get married and become pregnant and that he asked other women the same invasive and unlawful questions during their own interviews. When Bardhi did become pregnant in late March 2016, the complaint states that she was nervous to tell Neumann—in part because of his pointed interview questions—but felt like she was “forced” to announce her pregnancy after just one month.
Bardhi had to explain that she could no longer accompany Neumann on business trips, according to the complaint, “due to his penchant for bringing marijuana on chartered flights and smoking it throughout the flight while in the enclosed cabin.” It alleges that about a week before she told Neumann she was pregnant, she traveled with him and three other male WeWork executives on a chartered plane from Seattle to San Francisco and that he and some or all of the executives, excluding her, smoked marijuana throughout the flight.
After she became pregnant with her second child in February 2018, the claim said Neumann and Berrent and other leadership looked for a permanent replacement instead of hiring someone temporarily when she was on leave. The claim said that Neumann repeatedly referred to Bardhi’s maternity leave as “retirement” and a “vacation.” “Indeed, during and after both leaves, Ms. Bardhi paid the price in her position and earning power at the Company, by having her role drastically and materially reduced, being demoted, and having male employees elevated over and replacing her,” it said.
“This discriminatory treatment curtailed her opportunities at the Company, and ultimately she was terminated just over six months after her second leave,” the complaint said. She was told her role was eliminated because there was “no longer a role for her after Mr. Neumann’s departure.” Neumann stepped down from the CEO position in September after the failed IPO.
The complaint also discusses other women who have filed lawsuits against WeWork and members of the leadership team. In June 2018, Lisa Bridges, WeWork’s former senior vice president of total rewards, filed a lawsuit in New York State Supreme Court against WeWork and Berrent. Bridges alleged that she experienced gender discrimination, gender-based pay disparities and retaliation. She claimed that she coordinated a study in October 2018 that found a “glaring” pay gap between men and women and that Berrent defended it saying that “men take risks and women don’t.” In her complaint, Bridges alleged that after she raised the issue, she was put on leave and then fired.
In October 2018, Ruby Anaya, the former director of culture and director of product management, filed a lawsuit in New York State Supreme Court against WeWork and its cofounder and Chief Culture Officer Miguel McKelvey. She claimed that she was sexually assaulted on two occasions by male WeWork employees and that she was retaliated against after she complained about the company’s response and other concerns, including pay inequality. She claimed she was dismissed after disagreeing with the company’s decision not to fire the alleged perpetrators and for raising concerns about the pay disparity.
Late last month, WeWork announced that it accepted an offer from SoftBank Group of $5 billion in new financing and a tender offer of up to $3 billion for existing shareholders, giving the Japanese conglomerate approximately 80% of the company. SoftBank also accelerated an existing commitment to fund $1.5 billion. The statement said that WeWork would be “an associate” of SoftBank, not a “subsidiary.” The deal valued WeWork at $8 billion, down significantly from its $47 billion valuation in a January 2019 fundraising round.
Neumann stepped down from the board, although he is still an observer, and the company received voting control of his shares. Forbes estimates that Neumann walked away a billionaire.
Source: Forbes – Leadership