I Had a Baby and Cancer When I Worked at Amazon. This Is My Story
Last Saturday, I read the 6,000-word New York Times piece, “Inside Amazon,” in the car on my way to the beach. I sat quietly in the front seat, glued to my phone while my husband flapped his hand gesturing for help with Google maps. My two-year-old danced to the sounds of Raffi in the back. When we got to the beach, we set up our spot, complete with dinosaur sand toys. My husband and daughter made a beeline for the water. I put on my Coolibar SPF 50 jacket to cover my skin from the sun. Then I sat down in my chair and wept.
Until July of 2014, I worked for Amazon. As a relatively successful young book editor, I’d been hired by the company in 2011 to help launch its New York City-based book publishing outpost created to commission original content by name writers. The media landscape was continuing to evolve; everyone was in everyone else’s lane. It was a big opportunity, one many people inside the publishing industry told me privately I would be crazy not to take. I was drawn to Amazon’s spirit of innovation, its agility, and its culture of excellence. I was about to start Columbia’s Executive MBA program when the offer came in. Why not, as the saying goes, “earn to learn,” I thought. I took the job.
I was dazzled by the people I met in different pockets of the company those first few months. They were all smart. They were all lightning-fast. And, I quickly noted, when it came to leadership positions, they were almost all men. “So, who’s our Sheryl Sandberg?” I asked a VP. He cited General Counsel Michelle Wilson, the sole woman on Jeff Bezos’s executive team. The next year, in 2012, Wilson left the company to take maternity leave. She never returned.
In 2013, during my second year at Amazon, I had a baby of my own. Six weeks after my daughter was born, I was diagnosed with cancer. I was given detailed instructions by my oncologist’s staff on how to “pump and dump” my breast milk for 24 hours to prevent my daughter from ingesting radioactive matter. There I was, soothing my infant, unsure of whether or not I would be around to see her first birthday.
After my surgery, while I was still on maternity leave, I received a form letter saying that the health insurance provided by my employer had been terminated. Dozens of panicked emails and phone calls later, the whole thing was, I was told, a glitch in the system. After a week of back and forth, I was offered COBRA coverage, by which point I had already switched to my husband’s insurance, where I remained for the duration of my care. I chalked it up to a horrendous administrative error but remain disappointed that a company of Amazon’s size didn’t have better mechanisms in place to prevent something like that from happening during an employee’s maternity leave.
After a five-month leave, I was nervous and excited to return to work, and I showed up that first day back with a big smile and a phone full of baby pictures to share. I figured I’d catch up with folks and get a high-level update on how the business was doing, since the strategy had evolved from the time I was hired. Here’s what happened instead: I was taken to lunch by a woman I barely knew. Over Cobb salad she calmly explained that all but one of my direct reports — the people I had hired — were now reporting to her. In the months that followed, I was placed on a dubious performance improvement plan, or PIP, a signal at Amazon that your employment is at risk. Not long after that I resigned.
The truth is, I’ve moved on. I’m healthy. I have a great job doing work I love. There’s no question Amazon is an incredible company. I met some of the strongest, most brilliant women of my career there. Unfortunately, many of those women have left. And the voices commenting on the New York Times piece so far have been predominantly male leaders of male-dominated teams.
Jeff: You asked for direct feedback. Women power your retail engine. They buy diapers. They buy books. They buy socks for their husbands on Prime. On behalf of all the people who want to speak up but can’t: Please, make Amazon a more hospitable place for women and parents. Reevaluate your parental leave policies. You can’t claim to be a data-driven company and not release more specific numbers on how many women and people of color apply, get hired and promoted, and stay on as employees. In the absence of meaningful public data — especially retention data — all we have are stories. This is mine.