Workers speaking out about toxic workplace culture — whether it be on the basis of sexism, racism, homophobia, or something else — is it not new. You don’t need to be a historian to know some of America’s most famous businessmen, from Andrew Carnegie to Alfred Sloan, cultivated a culture of discrimination within their ranks. We know this because workers have voiced their concerns, albeit quietly, throughout history — be it to reporters, political leaders, or their peers.
Today’s workers are increasingly cutting out the middlemen, using social media, open letters and other tech-enabled tools to tell their stories directly to the world. And just as importantly, to push back on attempts by their bosses to silence or discredit them.
In the last few weeks, workers at Amazon, Google, Mailchimp, and Salesforce have all complained publicly about their company’s internal workplace cultures. They allege racism and sexism, evidenced by pay disparities, sexual harassment, otherwise exploitative treatment.
According to Techworker advisor Ray Holgado, who filed a racial discrimination complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing while at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), it makes sense that these allegations come in waves. Watching two Black women, Ifeoma Ozoma and Aerica Shimizu Banks, speak out about discriminatory treatment at Pinterest made him rethink his position at CZI, for example. “I had to really reflect on my experience, and the experiences of many of my colleagues, and think if there actually is another way,” he says.
Ultimately, these waves of publicized allegations prove that the tech industry has a systemic discrimination problem — in other words, the kind of deep-seated power imbalances that will require government intervention to solve. However, in the meantime, individuals like Holgado, Ozoma, Banks, and those listed below force companies to begin self-correcting. Companies plagued by “double talk,” Holgado says (like when Salesforce publishes guides on how to be an antiracist but gets caught gaslighting their own Black employees) deserve added scrutiny.
To self-correct, Holgado says it will require “a reframing of what it means to diversify and integrate perspectives.”
Google’s toxic internal culture made headlines last December when they fired ethical AI researcher Dr. Timnit Gebru, who published a report that was critical of racial bias in a AI models processing language. Last week, Google fired her co-lead Dr. Margaret Mitchell after locking her out of her corporate email since January. Mitchell had been publicly critical of Google executives after Gebru’s firing, including division head Jeff Dean and CEO Sundar Pichai. Her firing came one day after Google publicly announced they would be reorganizing their AI teams under executive Marian Croak, a Black Google executive.
According to leaked audio and emails accessed by Reuters, Google plans to conduct a racial equity audit and change it’s research oversight process. Mitchell and Gebru, who have both been vocal on Twitter before and after their firings, aren’t having it. “You fire me and then you want to announce this? The absolute nerve. The nerve,” Gebru said in a quote tweet of the Reuters article.
On Friday afternoon, Gebru also announced on Twitter that she had received an email from Google requesting a “departure follow-up.” “Interesting how it took them no time to ‘depart’ me but 3 months to send this email. What were they doing in that time?” she asked. The company is known for making controversial actions on Friday afternoons when they’re less likely to receive media coverage.
In an investigation by Recode, more than twelve employees (10 of whom are Black) spoke about racism within the company culture at Amazon. The employees report notably biased treatment, including large disparities in performance reviews, microaggressions, and outright offensive comments from staff. In one particularly notable interaction, a white manager told his Black employee “my ancestors owned slaves but I’m pretty sure they were good to their slaves” according to the Recode article (this anecdote was also published on Discotech).
These employees say biased treatment at the company has affected both their mental health and professional careers, earning fewer promotions or pay raises, for example. Four out of the 10 Black employees said they sought mental health counseling while at Amazon to manage the impacts. Employees say that when they reported maltreatment to human resources, employees at fault faced few repercussions. Several of the offending colleagues work for Amazon Web Services under Andy Jassy, who will be replacing Bezos as CEO — though employees said they believe Jassy genuinely cares about combating systemic racism.
Employees have been airing their concerns about sexist and racist treatment at the company for at least three years. However, because the company has never taken on outside investment, they face less risk of public accountability. Employees at the company allege large systemic pay inequities for women, LGBTQ, and BIPOC people as well as interpersonal examples of sexual harassment.
On February 17th, principal engineer Kelly Ellis went viral on Twitter when she publicly announced she was leaving because of rampant sexism at the company. She says she quit unexpectedly after learning she was paid significantly less than her male colleagues in other cities and a conversation about her pay went poorly. Angelo Ragin, Mailchimp’s first Black employee, told The Verge he was also underpaid. “I would not recommend friends work at Mailchimp, especially women,” Ellis said in the tweet.
Within two weeks of each other, two Black women – Vivianne Castillo and Cynthia Perry – left Salesforce alleging exploitative treatment. Both report being gaslit and facing many microaggressions while at the company, ranging from being dismissed after raising concerns about Salesforce’s methods for calculating pay inequities to being simply overworked. In her letter, for example, Castillo says she was told by a supervisor that she was “basically doing two jobs and getting paid for one.” In Perry’s letter, she said she chose to move to a less expensive location in Chicago so that she and her husband could survive on his income alone. She said she needed time away from working to “rest and heal from my experiences at Salesforce.”
Both women pointed out how the company has developed a progressive reputation for prioritizing equity. The company has urgently and publicly asserted their belief that Black Lives Matter, for example, and partnered with groups like the NAACP. These employees, however, allege that those same antiracist commitments aren’t mirrored throughout the company. Salesforce’s culture is “fueled by manipulative marketing and anchored in little to no internal or external accountability when it comes to dealing with matters related to diversity, equity, and inclusion,” Castillo said in her letter.