Former Top BET Exec Claims "Misogynistic Culture" in Discrimination Lawsuit

Fired in March while on leave for breast cancer, Zola Mashariki says in her complaint that rampant harassment of women "begins at the top of the corporate structure."
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Zola Mashariki

Zola Mashariki, formerly the head of originals at Black Entertainment Television, has moved ahead on legal claims she foreshadowed upon her ouster from the network in March. In a discrimination lawsuit filed late Wednesday in California federal court, she is suing Viacom, BET and former president of programming Stephen Hill, alleging rampant gender discrimination at the network.

"The Company fosters a good old boys’ club atmosphere and mentality that are hostile to women and their advancement," states the complaint. "This misogynistic culture, which marginalizes, demeans, and undervalues women, begins at the top of the corporate structure."

Mashariki worked at Fox Searchlight for 15 years, where she shepherded many films, including the hit The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. She says she joined BET in 2015 because as a woman of color, the brand spoke to her and offered an opportunity to increasing the visual representation of African-Americans. 

Diagnosed with early breast cancer in December 2016, Mashariki says she continued to work until Feb. 6, the day of her surgery, when she began medical leave. Then, Mashariki says she was diagnosed with a second, more severe, type of breast cancer that required a longer leave.

"When Ms. Mashariki was at her weakest moment, Viacom, BET, and Defendant Hill escalated their retaliation against her, proffering that due to her disability, she could no longer represent BET," states the complaint. "If Viacom’s and BET’s actions with respect to her leave were not enough, upon information and belief, a senior executive at BET suggested to Ms. Mashariki’s colleagues that she was 'faking' her breast cancer. These false and reprehensible statements caused irreparable damage to Ms. Mashariki by suggesting that she was a liar attempting to avoid the duties of her office."

But even before this, Mashariki, a Harvard Law School graduate, alleges she was the victim of discrimination, and in particular, singles out Hill, who like her, exited BET in March.

"Women are grossly underrepresented in leadership positions at the Company," she says through her complaint (read in full here). "The executive leadership of the Company is overwhelmingly male. Before Defendant Hill left BET, seven of the ten members of its executive team were men. Viacom has a similar overrepresentation of male executives, as six of the nine members of its senior management team are men. Development opportunities, including roles on critical committees, are routinely offered to male executives rather than their female counterparts."

Hill, she continues, "was a well-known member of the Company’s good old boys’ club. Defendant Hill has been permitted to systematically discriminate against and harass numerous women. He is protected by the Company’s old boys’ club and HR department."

According to the plaintiff, Hill treated women "like administrative support," took credit for their work, discouraged them from attending senior-level meetings and interjected himself into high-profile projects. "For instance, Defendant Hill insisted that he play an onscreen role in one of BET’s shows, compromising the integrity and budget of the show," alleges the complaint.

Mashariki cites her own experiences as well as other high-ranking female employees, who aren't named, but are quoted in her legal papers. She also complains about being required to "perform more work for less pay and lower title" compared to similarly situated male employees, and says Hill got a promotion despite his decisions alleging causing the company to lose millions in revenue.

On March 10, 2016, Hill "verbally attacked and threatened Ms. Mashariki when she demonstrated 'disobedience' by not immediately forwarding an email that she had not yet opened or reviewed," states the complaint, and the situation failed to de-escalate. Mashariki says she reported the incident to the head of human recourses, whose response she deemed to be "insufficient."

"The following week, Ms. Mashariki told Defendant Hill that as a woman, she felt uncomfortable with his intimidation and that his conduct made her feel physically unsafe in the workplace," continues the complaint. "Defendant Hill half-heartedly apologized, qualifying that she could have avoided the situation if she had just obeyed him. Following this unremorseful response, Ms. Mashariki again complained to HR and pointed out that Defendant Hill’s apology felt like victim blaming, a common response to women who protest harassment. Ms. Mashariki was particularly concerned because this was not the first time Defendant Hill had tried to intimidate her or other women."

A few weeks later, Mashariki says she was informed of an HR investigation into her "management style," which she feels wasn't appropriate. "Targeting a female leader’s 'tone' is textbook gender discrimination in the workplace and, as in this case, often fueled by racialized gender stereotypes," states the complaint.

The lawsuit continues by describing her interaction with HR over the following months and her increased marginalization despite continued work on a slate of new shows and marketing at upfronts. By November, Mashariki says she formally complained about discrimination and retaliation, but the retaliation "escalated," she alleges, culminating in termination, which she says happened while she was on medical leave.

"Defendant Hill announced he was leaving BET on March 29, 2017, while Ms. Mashariki was on leave," she adds. "Upon information and belief, Defendant’s Hill’s contract was terminated. Between February 9 and March 29, Viacom and BET went from supporting Defendant Hill to terminating him. This is likely because Defendant Hill’s performance suffered when he could no longer appropriate and take credit for Ms. Mashariki’s work while she was on leave, nor could he effectively lead Original Programming without her."

When the executive shakeout came, Mashariki put out word she could be taking legal action. At the time, she felt she was still under contract and that she would be returning to the network. BET called her claims "without merit," with insiders telling The Hollywood Reporter she was let go because of performance issues. Mashariki says these reports caused her to demand a retraction and that what the company was telling the media about her termination for performance issues was "defamatory."

"Ms. Mashariki’s mitigation efforts cannot repair the damage caused by the Company’s official statement and its silence in response to the anonymous comments made to the press," concludes the complaint.

She is now asserting violations of gender discrimination, hostile workplace, retaliation, violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act, denial of equal pay for equal work, disparate treatment, failure to prevent harassment under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, defamation and more. Mashariki is demanding unspecified monetary damages plus a permanent injunction against Viacom and BET from engaging in unlawful practices plus an order requiring the companies to implement programs to remedy a hostile work environment. She also demands to be restored to her rightful position at the company or full back and front pay. Mashariki is represented by attorneys at Sanford Heisler Sharp as well as Medina Orthwein.

Viacom issued a response in reaction to the lawsuit.

“These claims misrepresent the facts and are without merit," says a spokesperson. "We strongly deny any allegation of wrongdoing and we intend to respond to the specific allegations in the course of legal proceedings. At Viacom and BET, we take the health and well-being of our employees very seriously and we are committed to fostering an inclusive, diverse workplace that supports the success of all employees.”

An attorney for Mashariki has released the following response to the lawsuit and Viacom's reply: "Our client is recovering from major surgery. While Ms. Mashariki had no desire to be in conflict with Viacom or BET, she does have a right and an expectation of being treated fairly and lawfully by her employer. Zola is healing and spending time with her children," said Felicia Medina of Medina Orthwein LLP.  

 
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