Age & gender row | TikTok chief says female staff 'should remain quiet and humble', sacked exec alleges

TikTok chief says female staff 'should remain quiet and humble', sacked exec alleges

A former top marketing executive at TikTok is suing the social media giant, claiming she had been forced out of her job after she complained about sex, age and disability discrimination.

In a federal court lawsuit launched in the US, Katie Puris claims that that her 2022 sacking was the culmination of a series of incidents where she reported bias and, in one case, sexual harassment to supervisors and human resources.

Puris, who was nearing 50 when she was dismissed, claims she was subjected to derogatory comments about her age and that Zhang Lidong - the chairman of TikTok’s parent company ByteDance, believed women "should remain quiet and humble at all times" and preferred "docility and meekness" in female employees.

She also claims TikTok refused to grant her leave to address medical conditions spurred by the stress and pressure of her job.

Lawyers for Puris, said in a joint statement that she faced swift retaliation for complaining about discrimination despite being "enormously successful" at her job.

"TikTok’s actions against Ms. Puris are illegal and we look forward to vindicating her rights," they said.

Puris alleged that Zhang was “displeased with the way” she led presentations because “she celebrated her team’s successes and achievements, which he felt was inappropriate because he believes that women should always remain humble and express modesty.”

“Essentially, Lidong Zhang believes women should be quiet,” the lawsuit said.

Puris also claimed that she was “never permitted to present or speak” during bi-monthly strategy meetings. It was also alleged that ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming expressed a preference for hiring younger employees, regardless of their experience.

Part of the lawsuit explained: “At every step, Ms. Puris reported the discriminatory treatment and sexual harassment she faced — to her managers, Human Resources and Employee Relations — and the Company, taking its directives from the office in China, failed to take any corrective action.”

Disrupting sexism within the workplace

Although this case is unfolding in the US, Puris’s claims are symptomatic of the widespread ageism and sexism that still exists within the workplace even in the UK. The 2022 Gender Equality in the Workplace report by Randstad, which surveyed 6,000 working adults, revealed that two-thirds (67%) of women had experienced gender discrimination in the workplace of some form.

Similarly, data from the UK Parliament found that of workers who have applied for jobs since turning 50, over a quarter (27%) have been put off jobs since turning 50 as they sound like they're aimed at younger candidates; almost a third (32%) believe they have been turned down for a job because of their age.

Legal implications of discrimination at work

Speaking previously to HR Grapevine, Stephen Woodhouse, Employment Law Solicitor at Stephensons, said that age, like gender, is a protected characteristic and therefore, attempting to force a worker into retirement due to age is illegal.

“Under legislation set out in the Equality Act 2010, age is categorised as a ‘protected characteristic’. This essentially means that an employer cannot make derogatory comments, treat someone less favourably or for that person to be put at a disadvantage, because of their age,” Woodhouse said.

“In some scenarios, an employer may be allowed to apply a genuine occupational requirement for a job role based on age. However, this must be objectively justified and a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. If an organisation discriminates against an employee because of their age, without objective justification, that is likely to be grounds for the employee to bring a claim at an employment tribunal.

Advice for HR in preventing age discrimination

“It is imperative that HR teams take measures to prevent age discrimination in the workplace. For instance, this could include the implementation and communication of anti-discrimination policies, regularly reviewing hiring and recruitment practices as well as better training for colleagues to provide guidance on how to eradicate age discrimination in the workplace,” Woodhouse added.

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