March 6, 2021

Bias suit against Twitter set to expand across engineer ranks

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Twitter headquarters, located at1355 Market St

Twitter headquarters, located at1355 Market St

By Ben Hancock, From The Recorder


SAN FRANCISCO — Lawyers for a former Twitter Inc. software engineer are ready to argue that the company’s culture around job promotions holds back women at all rungs of its engineering ranks.

Jason Lohr, an attorney with San Francisco-based Lohr Ripamonti & Segarich, said his firm will submit on Friday an amended complaint that expands the scope of a proposed gender bias class action against Twitter to include all female software engineers.

The case, filed in March 2015 by former Twitter software engineer Tina Huang, alleges violations of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act and wrongful termination. It is proceeding in San Francisco Superior Court before Judge Mary Wiss.

Huang’s lawyers, who initially sought to represent a narrower class, contend that they have obtained information through discovery showing that the same promotions process is used at every job level in Twitter’s software engineering department. Earlier this month, Wiss said she would allow Huang’s lawyers to amend their complaint, over the objections of Twitter’s lawyers.

Whereas the original filing sought to certify a class of women who had been denied promotions to only four software engineering positions, the amended complaint will seek to cover women who have held or currently hold any of the eight titles within the software engineer “technical ladder.” That includes the lowest rung, Software Engineer I.

Lohr said it’s not clear how many more would be scooped up by the broadened class definition. But he predicted that it would be sizable.

“We anticipate that the addition of this entry job title will have a significant impact on the class because a disproportionate number of women are represented in the lower tier engineering titles,” he said in an email.

(Click here to view amended complaint.)

The original complaint said that the class exceeds 50 former and current female employees of Twitter. Huang’s lawyers have still not brought a motion to certify the class, but that is sure to be a flashpoint in coming months.

Twitter is being defended in the case by Lynne Hermle, a partner at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe who grabbed headlines last year in defending venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers at trial against sex discrimination claims brought by Ellen Pao.

Hermle did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment on Thursday. A spokesperson for Twitter declined to comment.

“Black box”

Huang­—who joined Twitter in 2009, two years after the company was founded—rose through several positions in the software engineer hierarchy and became a “staff engineer” in 2011. But after being nominated for a promotion in winter 2013, Huang claimed she was denied a higher position via an opaque committee process that the complaint calls a “black box.” Huang says she was turned back despite receiving consistently positive performance reviews.

After she requested an investigation into the decision in 2014, Huang said she was unexpectedly placed on personal leave. That leave, which was only supposed to last for one week, ended up stretching for almost three months. Feeling in limbo, Huang submitted her resignation in May 2014.

Her complaint alleges that Twitter maintains policies and practices that deny equal job opportunities to women, including effectively discouraging women from seeking or applying for senior-level and leadership positions. Her suit seeks to end these practices, as well as to recover damages including lost compensation and job benefits.

IMAGE:Twitter headquarters in San Francisco Jason Doiy / The Recorder

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