An open letter to Silicon Valley, from a woman in tech
Published under the Code Like a Girl Pen Name account to retain the anonymity of the writer.
I am a female engineer and a former Apple employee. I have been conflicted about whether it is right to share this story about my time at the company. It is difficult to draw a very clear line in matters of race or gender. As women, we also tend to be lone barometers in gauging the importance of some of these issues.
But every person in this industry has a responsibility to speak up and contribute to resolving some of these problems. Women (of every race, ethnicity or stature within companies) show up at work to work and be successful. Employers have an obligation to provide a safe and healthy work environment where they can do so. In the event of discrimination or harassment, employers also have an obligation to handle the situation with empathy and integrity.
But what I have learned from my experience with these matters is that the handling of such issues in the business world leaves a lot to be desired. So, I am trying to draw attention to some issues that I think need to be resolved.
It is still difficult for me to explain my situation very well. All I can say for sure is this — there seemed to be some prejudices within my organization, based on both gender and race. This bias appeared to be fostering some feeling within the organization that all employees were not being treated fairly.
One day, one of my supervisors jumped to my defense at a team event, in an awkward display of sexism. The gesture was unnecessary and I was taken aback, but I chose to ignore what happened. In hindsight, I should have addressed the issue right when it occurred.
However, a group of other male coworkers who resented the attention I received started directing inappropriate and misogynistic remarks towards me. (This is the classic pushback that Tracy Chou talks about)
They started insinuating in public that I was doing well because of my “cuteness factor”, rather than because of my work. The group also made remarks implying that I was using my gender as an advantage at work and soliciting attention from my supervisor — I wasn’t. My opinions were also demeaned in meetings and on social media.
It took me a few weeks to realize that I was being willfully targeted, during which I tried to defend myself. But the situation then escalated to anti-immigrant rhetoric, derogatory remarks about my cultural background and racial intimidation.
I am Indian, so they made comments about not liking to work with me or the growing number of Indian tech workers in the company. I also faced hostile remarks about arranged marriages being forced on Indians for generations and about Indian women being subservient
At a lunch with several other coworkers, one of these men ordered me to summon the waiter and pay the bill, in the tone of a command to someone inferior and subservient. When I refused, he got more insistent and aggressive. Every other person at the table commented about this shocking and inappropriate behavior.
This intensity of personal intimidation and racial hostility was extremely alarming. The cumulative aggression was so high that I felt uncomfortable and unsafe in my own workplace.
I approached my management when the situation escalated and was then directed to HR. Management was skeptical and HR embarked on a defensive and confrontational script. I felt cornered, unsafe and unsure of what to do next.
I almost quit my job at this point — it had already been a few months of coming to work in this kind of climate. I was beyond distressed and stressed out. But, out of sheer bullheadedness, I forced myself to stay on for the four more months that it took for the company to take some responsibility, conduct an investigation and stop the targeted abuse.
The handling : A breach of responsibility
I was already feeling overwhelmed at facing such open hostility from multiple coworkers. Leadership involvement only made things more uncomfortable. I only went to HR and management to get help with stopping these behaviors so I could continue to work.
But my encounters with them were like a precursor to a courtroom battle with me on one side and everybody else on the other. So, just like in a courtroom, there was no empathy, I was intimidated and everything I said was in doubt or twisted to benefit the company’s agenda of legal non-liability.
When I was initially hesitant about filing a formal harassment complaint, HR sent me emails recording the minutes of our meetings. The emails made it seem as though I had willfully declined the company’s assistance, even though I had only requested that my manager talk to the offenders first, since HR and Business Conduct were so intimidating. This pattern of misrepresenting facts and proceedings to craft a company advantage continued for several weeks.
I have since learned that this system is rather standard across the industry — companies wanting to protect their legal liability rather than trusting their employee or trying to help them. This approach is completely counterproductive and only intimidates you further.
There are several issues to address with managing harassment, and none of these were addressed by the system or the company.
- There was no access to company policy.
- There was no meaningful process to handle harassment and no clear responsibilities for individuals or between departments. I had no idea who to approach for what problem.
- There seemed to be far too many conflicts of interest. My concerns were completely eclipsed by my chain of management’s own fears about possible actions against them. This created situations where they were themselves conflicted about if and how to deal with the problem.
- My challenge in this situation was, that by the time I even recognized that I was being harassed, it was too late to avoid the distressing consequences. I got no help or consideration with managing this.
My management chain simply dismissed my distress as overreactions. HR simply distanced itself and refused to help me with anything. (Even with getting time off for anxiety, I was only sent one email with two links to employee assistance programs.)
- There were far too many decisions dependent on me. I seemed to be responsible for taking too many decisions about how to proceed — be it convincing the company to take responsibility, confronting the offenders or even getting time off. It is not reasonable to expect the victim to have the presence of mind to know how to tackle this problem. The company needs to know what to expect in cases of harassment, and handle the situation accordingly.
- I had no meaningful organizational or cultural support. No one seemed to trust me or care about what was happening, and conversely, I didn’t have anyone who I could trust. HR and my management chain was disbelieving to the point of questioning my account of what had elapsed.
My HR representative also added to my distress. (When I told her that remarks about me soliciting attention from male supervisors were inappropriate and offensive, she instead asked me to justify why they were offensive. It is not very reassuring to have someone who is supposed to be supportive at best or neutral at worst, refuse to even acknowledge how statements could be offensive to you.)Until the investigation was completed, even my honesty was at stake.
I felt like had I not pushed through until the end of the investigation in spite of feeling unsafe, not only would there have been no action likely by the company, but even bringing up these concerns would have detracted from my credibility, if I were to stay on.
- Even after the investigation was completed, there was such limited empathy around this issue and so little motivation to look beyond the legal implications that there was no one else I could approach or trust to look at the situation any further.
No one at the company took responsibility for anything other than protecting the company’s liability in case of a lawsuit. I felt like an adversary and an inconvenience, not an employee raising serious concerns about her coworkers’ unwarranted behaviors.
The personal impact
I had never encountered harassment before, so I didn’t recognize it in time or know enough about it to protect myself better from its consequences.
Harassment is a complex and severe psychological and physiological experience, the strain of which can cause you to fall apart at a human level.
I began to have difficulty sleeping, concentrating and making decisions. I got physically ill from the continued stress (frequent migraines, constant throwing up due to anxiety). I have lost count of how many times I cried — at work and outside. I had days of absenteeism and frequent panic attacks — so much so that I almost had an accident when I had a panic attack on my drive home after a meeting regarding this issue.
My stress and anxiety symptoms only got more frequent and severe after the first couple of months. I started having major sleep disturbances, endocrinal and gastrointestinal issues, and depressive symptoms. After a while, I was so physically and mentally worn out that it was impossible for me to even complete a simple task like reading for ten minutes, without throwing up or crying or getting anxious. Being productive was out of the question. I eventually quit.
For many months now, my life and health have been in turmoil. I have yet to enjoy a good night’s sleep. In the wake of the emotional distress from this episode, I have gone from being a cheerful and even-tempered person, to being more withdrawn and difficult than I ever imagined.
The conflicts during and in the aftermath of this episode have also taken a toll on my relationships. For all this time, my family has had to bear the brunt of my unrest. They have literally had to nurse me back to health — I would have never survived without their care. Supporting me through this episode has impacted their well being too — the intense mental and emotional strain has caused them to fall ill as well. This strife has shattered all of our lives like nothing else before.
This cannot possibly be an experience that is considered normal in the course of someone’s career in this or any industry.
Apple is the most admired company in the world today today — not only because of its products but also because of its progressive values. But unfortunately, the culture and mindset in some of its engineering organizations mirrors the larger discriminatory trend in the Valley.
To be fair to Apple, system and handling aside, the company admitted a mistake and took some action after completing its investigation (though I wasn’t privy to the details). I received an apology from the company for ignoring my concerns and eventually also got time off to deal with my stress. Until now, the company has vouched for my credibility and my privacy. Even after I left Apple, the company has tried to set things right for me in my career. After its gesture of good faith ( which I never expected, I am grateful for and is unlikely at any other company and under any other CEO), my credibility, not to mention my career are likely to be better off if I stay silent about this matter.
Perhaps it is naive of me to expect any change, but I would much rather some of these systemic problems be addressed — not just at the company, but even the industry at large. I am also reluctant to use this episode as a stepping stone in my career, given how heavily my family and I have suffered. So, I figure that if I can take this one to the chin, so can the company.
Responsibility: Next Steps
If my experience is anything to go by, harassment is one of the most brutal experiences women encounter in the workplace. The journey to even establishing company liability can be a very solitary and intensely punishing one.
Companies need to do far more than what they are doing right now to prevent women from eventually quitting. They need to cultivate cultures where such situations don’t arise in the first place. And in case such situations happen, companies also need to manage them far more responsibly than they are doing right now.
- The first step to taking responsibility is admitting that there is a problem.
- Companies also need to take responsibility for finding a comprehensive solution for harassment as a whole, not just dealing with its legal ramifications. The present system considers harassment and its victim purely a liability to be dismissed, rather than trying to retain her — this approach is only setting women up to fail. It is disturbing to learn that this institutionalized denial is considered standard business practice. I am not naive enough to suggest that companies abandon legal concerns, but I think this issue is serious enough that it warrants at least an attempt to arrive at a reasonable middle ground.
- There needs to be a plan to manage and resolve such matters and support victims until they recover and can be productive again. The company also needs to handle this problem with the empathy it merits.
Stanford has a harass.stanford.edu portal, I don’t know how many businesses do.
The plan should at least address basic issues like policies, a management roadmap, safety concerns, change of environments, alternate supervisors in cases of a conflict of interest, getting assistance with time off etc.
- The company needs to support and empower women to take a stand in these situations. This includes reevaluating notions of employee loyalty and being willing to change company policies around these problems. Conversations around this issue are polarized today.
Women are being asked to choose between their conscience and their careers — this is not a fair choice.
Companies cannot have it both ways. If they are punishing women for standing up for themselves or doing what is right, rather than being open to addressing these problems, they are part of the problem and not part of the solution.
- Finally, corrective actions for any violations have to be significant enough to be a deterrent to such behaviors in the future. There also needs to be some accountability for these actions. Instead, at least in my case, company actions seemed to be ineffectual in stopping some of the most egregious and hostile behaviors. Added to which, there seemed to be no accountability for these actions.
The leadership question
I had a good journey at Apple prior to this episode — even my management had been good to me before. I worked with people who were smart and worked hard. I have learned more from them than I would have anywhere else in the world, and I truly admire and respect them for this. Some of them have also supported me through this as friends more than as co-workers — I would not be here today without their guidance.
However, an episode like this is damaging enough that it cancels out a lot of the good that came before it.
It is not easy to recognize or overcome discrimination and harassment. Women put a lot at stake while taking a stand, not just their careers (their personal safety and economic independence most of all). Their difficulty in this situation is only compounded by a system and culture that fights them every step of the way.
I don’t think that it is reasonable to expect anyone to face these situations with the patience or strength of spine that I managed to muster. I also think women in these situations deserve to be treated as people, rather than as pawns in the greater agenda of protecting the company’s legal interests.
Universities in the country are being investigated for their handling of harassment and assault on their campuses — it should also be time for the business world to evaluate its own approach to similar matters.
Eventually, women can only do so much. Everyone else in this industry needs to step up to their responsibilities regarding this issue.
Business leaders are answerable for treating issues of prejudices, employee harassment and discrimination as marginal casualties in the way their businesses are operated, or as serious violations of human rights and dignity, that need to be prevented, handled and enforced accordingly (not only with their public commitment to these issues, but also with high standards and the right kind of systems within their own businesses). Their actions regarding this matter are a reflection of their values as well as a legacy of their leadership.
At this point, issues of race or gender inequities within certain organizations in Apple engineering are difficult to deny. The question now is — will the company (and industry) do what is right to change, not only for women but also for its own sake, or will it shy away from establishing higher standards for the treatment of women and minorities in the business world?