In early February 2021, Ayşe Naz Erkan was riding high. The free online brokerage firm Robinhood was hailing the engineer a hero for helping “solve” the unprecedented backlog of customer support tickets that nearly buried the company amid the Reddit-fueled “meme stock” frenzy that skyrocketed shares of GameStop and AMC Entertainment.

One year later, the artificial intelligence expert – touted by Forbes as one of the tech industry’s “leading women in A.I. research” – was unceremoniously fired the same day she returned to work after a trip abroad to care for her terminally ill mother in Turkey, she says. In a new lawsuit obtained by Rolling Stone, Erkan claims the termination was “callously” and illegally carried out as retribution for her complaints about systemic problems at Robinhood, namely an alleged “toxic culture of gender bias and retaliation.”

According to Erkan’s suit, her objective performance for the company was “unassailable.” She was the one who led the team that handled the mountain of urgent customer support tickets that overwhelmed the company after it halted customer purchases of GameStop, AMC and other meme stock shares on Jan. 28, 2021, her lawsuit says.

Speaking to Rolling Stone, Erkan called the emergency a “major black swan event,” meaning a potentially catastrophic problem so rare that its solution had to be invented on the fly. She says the company’s populist customers had been trying to short squeeze wealthy hedge fund managers who had bet against the beleaguered brick-and-mortar stocks, and they were out for blood over being sidelined.

“It was an online rebellion. They weren’t allowed to trade certain meme stocks, and a huge number of people were outraged. It was a pressure cooker,” she tells Rolling Stone. “I was in my same pajamas without any shower for five days straight, until the following Wednesday. It was pure crisis.”

Erkan says she orchestrated a team that worked around the clock to build an automated system that triaged and cleared the tsunami of tickets. Her performance garnered praise, all the way up to the company’s C-suite, her lawsuit says.

“Wanted to pop in and thank you all for all this team’s work helping us to get the backlog down and solve customer issues!,” a group message from CEO Vladimir Tenev sent shortly after the trading halt and excerpted in the lawsuit reads. “Getting customer support right and reducing the backlog is critically important to Robinhood and our customers. Special shout out to … @NazErkan for leading here!”

During her employee review at the end of the quarter, Erkan was lauded as a “shining star” whose “superpowers” with machine learning and natural language processing “saved the company,” her lawsuit states. She received “minor commentary on areas of improvement,” the suit says, but it related to the intense pressure of the GameStop/AMC chaos and a power vacuum above her head. She was awarded additional company stock worth approximately $500,000 and given an enlarged data team with people redeployed from another manager’s team, the suit says.

Everything was going great – until Erkan’s higher profile and “fierce” gender advocacy put her on a collision course with the company’s “discriminatory hiring practices and biased treatment of female employees,” her lawsuit alleging gender discrimination, whistleblower retaliation and wrongful termination filed Tuesday in San Francisco, California, claims.

According to the complaint, Robinhood “refused to even interview” Erkan for a director of engineering role when her boss was transferred. Instead, the company hired a male candidate who, Erkan alleges in the complaint, had “inferior education and training” relative to her and managed to land the job without going through the company’s standard vetting and interviewing process.

In a public securities filing ahead of Robinhood’s IPO last July, the company said it was committed to building a diverse workforce. It said that in 2020, it even used a third party to review all job descriptions “to remove any gender bias language.” According to Erkan’s lawsuit, Robinhood made “no substantive effort” to create a job description or publicly advertise the opening to attract candidates for the position ultimately filled by her new boss.

Naz Erkan

Naz Erkan

Courtesy of Naz Erkan

When Erkan complained to top executives and human resources about her view that she was being shut out – voicing her concern that Robinhood had an “all-male set of directors” overseeing the engineering department and an alleged pattern of failing to promote female employees – she was either ignored or “treated as the problem and was retaliated against,” her lawsuit states. (A rep for Robinhood did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

According to the lawsuit, the company’s Head of Diversity & Inclusion even admitted the company’s recruiting practices were a problem that “would take a couple of years to fix,” and “ominously” told Erkan, “I hope you’re still around then.”

Erkan claims that once her new male supervisor arrived on the job, he treated her “dismissively” and told her she was being “negative” or “always pointing out problems” when she shared strong opinions. She claims he blocked her from hiring a senior engineering manager while simultaneously criticizing her output. More importantly, her suit alleges that she complained to HR about the alleged mistreatment, but the issue was never addressed. Meanwhile, her new manager learned of her complaints, she alleges, and “grew angry over her protected activity,” purportedly calling her “immature” for reporting him to HR.

“I felt gaslighted,” she tells Rolling Stone. “It was a textbook example of a woman being criticized for her personality – being called negative, bossy, abrasive, aggressive. I was getting all these adjectives.” Her male colleagues who stated similarly strong opinions were not treated the same way, her lawsuit claims.

When Erkan appealed to a male mentor for help, the suit says, he warned her about what he claimed was entrenched gender discrimination at Robinhood, purportedly saying, “We have not figured out how to work with and listen to strong technical women with opinions.” The unidentified mentor allegedly said the company’s chief operating officer, Gretchen Howard, was a rare exception and that most women at the startup had to be careful and use a “soft” voice when expressing dissenting points of view.

According to Erkan’s complaint, her new manager – described in the suit as “an insecure misogynistic male who Robinhood held to basement-level standards” – started a campaign to push her out soon after she voiced concerns about him.

She alleges he bypassed standard HR protocols and “malevolently sought to obtain and curate” negative feedback from people who did not have a close working relationship with her, including a colleague who “had an axe to grind” because the company redeployed some of his headcount to Erkan’s team during and after the meme stock crisis. She further claims her new boss approached one of her male subordinates and “specifically asked for negative comments,” which the subordinate “refused to fabricate.”

Her voice cracking with emotion, Erkan tells Rolling Stone she was blindsided when she was fired on Feb. 16 of this year, the morning she returned to work after taking family leave under the California Family Rights Act to care for her terminally ill mother suffering from ALS and dementia in Turkey. “I don’t know why all of these things have aligned in my life. It’s very difficult,” she says.

Her lawsuit states that her new boss fired her in a meeting that he left after five minutes. The termination violated both the CFRA and the Fair Employment and Housing Act, the suit claims. If the company truly believed Erkan was underperforming, the standard procedure, Erkan insists in her suit, would have been to offer her counseling, coaching and betterment tools. Instead, her “sham” performance evaluation plan (PEP), which purportedly “concealed positive feedback, especially from female colleagues and reports,” was simply a pretext to fire her for speaking up, so it never got that far, her complaint reads.

“Succinctly put, Robinhood fired a ‘superhero’ female employee who saved the company while it retained a misogynistic, underperforming male supervisor because he did the company’s bidding and swept their misconduct under the rug,” the complaint says.

“Unfortunately, Ms. Erkan’s case is an example that no matter how accomplished you are, you can still face disparate treatment in your career,” Erkan’s lawyers Michael Zarocostas and Omid Nosrati say in a statement. “We hope that Ms. Erkan’s story shines a brighter light on similar workplace issues and employee rights in general.”

Claims Erkan: “It was a retaliatory culture.”