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Bay Area software company accused of systematic bias against women

A pair of recent lawsuits claims Bay Area software firm Zendesk systematically pays women less than men and discriminates and harasses women on the basis of pregnancy and gender.

Three of the plaintiffs are former employees who claim they had to quit the company because of discrimination and harassment. One is a current worker who has been at Zendesk since 2014. All filed suit anonymously. A lawyer for the women said plaintiffs may conceal their identities to prevent harassment or jeopardizing future employment.

Zendesk declined to respond to the allegations in the suits, saying it does not comment on pending litigation.

In one suit, the four women — current employee “Jane Roe” and former employees identified as “Jane Does” — allege the San Francisco company, which sells software for managing businesses’ relationships with customers, starts discriminating against women when hiring them, and continues to discriminate throughout their employment. That suit, filed late last month in San Francisco Superior Court, is seeking class-action status to bring in what it alleges are hundreds of current and former employees victimized over the past four years.

Zendesk paid female workers “significantly less” at hiring than their male counterparts, offered women less stock and fewer incentive-pay opportunities, and slotted women “overwhelmingly” into lower job levels, the suit claimed. The San Francisco company, valued in the stock market at $10.5 billion, also discriminated against female workers with regard to promotion, the suit alleged. The suit seeks unspecified damages, restitution of money allegedly due plaintiffs, and an order prohibiting Zendesk from gender-based pay discrimination.

The other suit, also filed in San Francisco Superior Court by the same law firm, involves the three former employees, Jane Does 1, 2 and 3.

Doe 1, hired in June 2019 as an accounts executive, developed a stomach abscess that her doctor suspected was related to job stress, the suit claimed. While she was on medical leave after surgery to treat the abscess, her male supervisor threatened to fire her if she did not “promptly return” to work, the suit alleged. Knowing that the company and her supervisor were “targeting her because of her disability,” the woman “felt that she had no choice but to return to work, against her doctor’s advice,” the suit claimed.

Once back, the supervisor “constantly badgered her about when she was going to be fully recovered and operating at full capacity,” causing extreme distress and endangering the woman’s health, the suit alleged. Her complaint to Zendesk’s human relations department drew no action, and she was “forced to resign” in January 2021 “due to the disability discrimination and harassment she faced, and lack of any appropriate response,” the suit claimed.

Doe 2 was hired in August 2018 as a sales-development representative, then became an account executive in May 2019, according to the suit. After learning she was pregnant with a high-risk pregnancy in April 2021, she told her manager, then “noticed a sharp decline in the opportunities available to her at Zendesk after she disclosed her pregnancy,” the suit alleged. The company passed her over for promotion in favor of a less-experienced male employee who had not been with the company as long, the suit claimed. Once, when pregnancy-related issues prevented her from finishing a minor task on time, her manager told her, “no excuses,” the suit alleged.

Her manager continued to “constantly single her out and criticize her for minor issues,” and accused her of failing to make enough phone calls and perform other tasks, even though she met her sales quota, the suit alleged. Despite meeting with customers and making calls on her days off, whenever she took time away for a doctor’s appointment, her manager would tell her she was falling short on her tasks, the suit claimed. The manager was punishing her “for being a pregnant woman who planned to go on maternity leave,” the suit alleged.

Although Zendesk’s employee policies describe biases against women in the workplace, including the “motherhood penalty,” her two complaints to her director were “fruitless,” the suit claimed. She complained to human resources, but never received the results of any investigation, according to the suit. When she returned from maternity leave, she was told that the manager who had allegedly harassed her had performed “within his rights and duties,” the suit said. When she was offered placement with a different manager but told nothing else could be done, she reached her “breaking point” and quit the company in April of this year, the suit alleged.

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