An open letter to Silicon Valley, from a former Apple employee and a woman in tech
CC: Apple Inc
I am a female engineer and a former Apple employee. This is a story about my time at the company that I never anticipated telling.
It is still difficult for me to explain my situation very well. All I can say for sure is this —the engineering leadership in my organization seemed to have open prejudices, based on both gender and race. This bias appeared to be fostering a culture of sexism and elitism within some of the underlying teams.
Some employees had either encountered visible displays of racial prejudice (particularly against Indian tech workers and even some other asian ethnicities) or felt uncomfortable enough in the dominant male culture of the organization that they simply left. With every departure and new hire, it had begun to feel like the organization was becoming more white and male.
One day, my engineering director jumped to my defense at a team event, in an awkward display of sexism. The gesture was unnecessary, so I was taken aback and didn’t know how to respond.
However, a group of other male coworkers who resented the attention I received then 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. I had my opinions demeaned in meetings and on social media. They also made remarks implying that I was using my gender as an advantage at work and soliciting attention from my director — I wasn’t.
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 (I’m Indian, so statements about not liking the number of work visas being given out to Indian tech workers or working with them), derogatory remarks about my cultural background (comments made to me about why arranged marriages were forced on Indians over generations and how Indian women were subservient) and racial intimidation (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 master commanding a slave. When I refused, he got more insistent and aggressive. Every other person at the table commented about this abhorrent behavior. ). To make things worse, one of these men owned a gun and was very vocal about how aggressively he used it (He would go shooting often and openly make claims about how he would rather shoot trespassers on his property at sight because he didn’t believe in waiting for the cops to come around). Since he was irrational enough to have initiated this racial hostility in the first place, and the intensity of misogyny and racism directed at me was so high, I was actually afraid that on further provocation, he might advance to threats of physical harm.
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 unsafe, cornered and unsure of what to do next.
I almost quit my job at this point — it had already been a few months of coming in 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 and 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 counter-productive and only makes you feel like an unwilling pawn in a corporate game of escaping liability.
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. The information I received was extremely minimal, and only prompted by my own questioning.
- There was no meaningful process to handle harassment and no clear responsibilities for individuals or between departments. Duties were split obscurely between HR, management and Business Conduct — I had no idea who to approach for what problem. Communication between these parties and me was extremely fragmented and confusing.
- 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. Companies should know what to expect with harassment by now and be prepared to handle things accordingly. However, my management chain seemed to be unprepared and ill-equipped to handle the situation. 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 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. They chose to cover it up or dismiss it.
- 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 begging for someone to take responsibility, confronting the offenders or even getting time off. It should be the company’s responsibility to tackle this problem, not the employee’s.
- 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. While I do not know what the management perspective in this system is, my management chain was disbelieving and insensitive to the point of implying that I was being dishonest. 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 confidence inspiring when someone who is supposed to be supportive at best and neutral at worst, refuses to even acknowledge how statements could be offensive.) Until the investigation was completed, even my honesty was at stake. This means that, had I not pushed through until the end of the investigation inspite of the threat of retaliation by an armed coworker hanging over my head, not only would there have been no action taken by the company, but simply bringing up these concerns would have detracted from my credibility, were I to stay on.
- Even after the investigation was completed, HR had taken action and presumably issued warnings, employees continued to be hostile or showed no signs of remorse — leadership and HR included. (Both continued to be unhelpful and difficult to interact with. Comments from one of the offenders continued through the very next meeting. My HR representative was simply childish and unprofessional after I gave feedback about her being unduly confrontational with me.) There continued to be so much open hostility and such limited empathy and understanding around this issue 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 was treated 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, and how many people I had to convince to take me seriously. 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 or having a headache. 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 one of the most upbeat and even-tempered people I have known, to being more difficult than I ever imagined I could be. The conflicts during and in the aftermath of this episode have 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 taken a toll on their well being too — the intense mental and emotional strain has caused them to fall ill as well. This strife has disrupted 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 industry.
Apple is the most admired company in the world 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, it atleast admitted a mistake and took some action after completing its investigation (though I wasn’t privy to the details). I received an apology from my management for willfully ignoring my concerns and eventually also got time off to deal with my stress. It has so far vouched for my credibility and my privacy. These actions do count for something. But it was a very solitary and intensely stressful journey to get to this point. So these actions came really late — the damage was already done.
If my experience is anything to go by, harassment is one of the oldest and most brutal experiences women encounter in the workplace, and derails their lives completely.
Companies are culpable for far more than issuing warnings to offenders or giving women time off to deal with the stress before they are made to quit. They need to cultivate cultures where such situations don’t arise in the first place. And if such situations do happen, companies also need to manage them far more responsibly than they are doing right now. The first step to taking responsibility is accepting there is a problem.
The company needs 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 working on retaining them — this is only setting women up to fail. It is disturbing to learn that this institutionalized denial, indifference and lack of responsibility is considered standard business practice. I am not naive enough to suggest that companies abandon legal concerns, but this issue is serious enough that it warrants atleast 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, Apple didn’t even come close.) 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, and not knock them down further. This includes reevaluating notions of employee loyalty and being willing to change company policies around these problems. Conversations around this issue are polarized right now. 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 addressing 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 within any organization.
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. I trusted the company — and that trust was betrayed over an issue as basic and critical as this one.
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. Eventually, they can only do so much. Everyone else in this industry needs to step up to their responsibilities regarding this issue.
Business leaders are finally 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 Apple engineering are difficult to deny. The question now is— will the company (perhaps even the industry) truly do what is right to change and resolve the situation, or will it shy away from establishing higher standards for the treatment of women and minorities in the business world.
* For privacy reasons, I am using a pen name for this post.
Some miscellaneous remarks …
On diversity :
Diversity metrics are incomplete without discrimination statistics (both actions and outcomes). These should also be considered key indicators of progress and should be published along with hiring, retention and promotion statistics.
On my motivations :
At the risk of sounding defensive, I will say that I have been fairly conflicted about publishing this post. I am not fond of being in the midst of controversies, the consequences of my choice to write about this (on both my career and my life) are uncertain to say the least, and Apple eventually did take some action. But the impact and aftermath of my situation have been too severe to let slide, and the gaps I encountered were glaring.
The strength of spine this episode has demanded of me, and the literal misery, depression, ill health and crisis of confidence it has caused cannot be acceptable or normal. Women (of every race and ethnicity) 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, and not be abused. In the event of discrimination or harassment, employers have an obligation to handle these situations with some basic integrity.