Report cover by Gabrielle Mérite for Project Include

Covid-19 made tech’s problems worse

How to fix what’s really wrong with companies

Ellen K. Pao
Published in
6 min readMar 30, 2021

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Over the past year, we’ve suffered so much. Covid-19 made almost everything worse at work. Harassment and hostility, work pressure, and the strain of a pandemic, along with trauma from ongoing racism, sexism, and other discrimination, have taken a toll on mental health. Until now, little research has been done on the impact of Covid-19 on the tech workforce. Project Include surveyed almost 3,000 people and interviewed dozens more about the shift to remote online workplaces. We looked specifically at who has been harmed, how they were harmed, and how to fix it.

Here’s what we learned: Harassment and hostility have infected online workspaces, work pressures are mounting, and everyone is experiencing increased anxiety. The structural forces in tech that have limited opportunities and equity for Asian, Black, Indigenous, and Latinx workers, for women and nonbinary workers, for transgender workers, and especially for workers at their intersections, have increased harm to these workers since Covid-19. With companies committing to remote and hybrid workplaces indefinitely, these problems are not going away on their own.

The move to online workspaces, with the blurring of home and work boundaries, brought the same types of harassment and hostility we’ve seen on social media platforms. Harm at work now includes public bullying attacks on group video calls, berating 1:1 over email, and racist and sexist link-sharing in chat. The coworkers most likely to be targets are Asian, Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people, women and nonbinary people, transgender people, and people older than 50.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, 1 out of 10 people have experienced an increase in race/ethnicity-based hostility. Percent of people who experienced an increase in hostility and identified as: Black (42%), Asian (27%), Latinx (22%), Multiracial (19%), white (1%); men only (7%), women and/or nonbinary (15%), Black men (41%), Black women and/or nonbinary (43%). See report for more details.
Visualization by Gabrielle Mérite for Project Include

Overall, 38% of workers have seen some form of harassment at work since Covid-19, and 26% have actually experienced it. Unfortunately, more than a third (35%) do not trust their company to respond fairly, and only 15% have reported harm. More than 25% of workers experienced an increase in gender-based harassment; some much more likely than others. Nonbinary people were 20 times as likely as men to have experienced an increase, and women were 18 times as likely. Transgender people were 21 times as likely as men (transgender and cisgender), and nearly 2 times as likely as cisgender people.

“Since Covid-19, more than 1 in 4 people have experienced an increase in gender-based harassment.” Percent of people who experienced an increase in harassment and identified as: both nonbinary & women (40%), nonbinary (40%), women only (36%), both nonbinary & men (9%), men only (2%); transgender (42%) and cisgender (25%). Trans people were nearly twice as likely as cisgender people.  98% of people who experienced increased gender-based harassment were women and/or nonbinary people. See report
Visualization by Gabrielle Mérite for Project Include

Whether intentionally or not, companies are putting more pressure on employees. Workers face longer working hours, higher expectations of being available, and more stressful communications, while losing the benefits of in-person interactions.

“Increasing work pressures” chart with percentage of workers who agree and agree strongly about: manager expects availability (27% and 10%), pressure to be online (33% and 19%), pressure to be online outside of work (36% and 18%), and work longer hours (33% and 31%)
Graph by Gabrielle Mérite for Project Include

And adding to both harms, 85% of workers are experiencing increased anxiety. “Brain fog” describes the effect of anxiety from the pandemic — in addition to police brutality, racist attacks, climate crises and more — putting extra load on the brain and making it harder to plan and concentrate.

What can we do?

We need to overhaul our companies and cultures as we redesign our workplaces. The technology industry was already rife with harassment, hostility, inequitable hiring practices, and large-scale systemic discrimination. As we reimagine post-Covid workplaces, we should address power imbalances and dismantle racism, sexism, and other discrimination. Our call to action for CEOs and executives: Make cultural and systemic transformation a true business imperative that you track, fund, staff, and experiment.

Quote: Anything simple is not going to work. Prof. Robin Ely, PhD, Diane Doerge Wilson Professor at Harvard Business School

Avoid shortcuts. They don’t work and often cause more damage. Listening sessions and PR statements won’t fix anything. Surveillance increases distrust and anxiety. A reporting tool can’t address employee fears of retaliation and inaction. Time off only shifts the timing of work unless workloads and expectations change. And self-help mental health, like meditation or mindfulness training, are insufficient and can make workers feel even worse.

Recommendations for systemic change

CEOs and leaders should take 5 actions for structural fairness, a healthy culture, and a better workforce.

Change leadership: Bring in leaders to make your executive team more diverse, and empower them. Project Include has long advocated for diversity at leadership levels for fairness and change. Bring in a C-level executive to head diversity, equity and belonging, and empower them. Examine why your company is not diverse at all levels and functions. Overhaul your human resources team and approach to overcome employee distrust. Audit company culture and structures, including long-term diversity and inclusion training for yourself and your executive team and managers; make sure facilitators and vendors include nonbinary people and women, Black, Asian, Indigenous, and Latinx people, trans people, and especially people holding more than one of these identities.

Hold yourself, your leaders, and your teams accountable: Proactively build systems to track whether your actions and experiments are working. Measure and set targets in diversity and belonging for yourself, executives, managers, and teams. Hold workers and yourself accountable by punishing harassment and hostility, and rewarding contributions to belonging and mental health. Ask about harm proactively, and improve reporting and communication around it. The earlier you address harm, the more problems you will avoid. Set clear expectations; update your code of conduct or detail how your current code applies to remote workplaces. Create space for employees to discuss problems by eliminating non-disclosure agreements and retaliation. Check back on problem situations every quarter.

Educate yourself, your leaders, and your employees on empathy and inclusion and how they translate into work interactions — and the hard conversations required for change.

Make mental health a priority: Understand and accommodate how people want to work and communicate, and what hours are better for them. Reset expectations of what people can accomplish.

Build real ways for employees to take time off and actual breaks. If you give a day off — whether it’s paid time off, medical leave, a holiday, or a no-meeting day — make it a day off from all work interactions and expectations. Our brains need downtime to recover; even a five-minute break during a long meeting can help. Provide better and more flexible health care coverage for mental health care, care for transgender people, and in general.

Lead by example: What you do will determine whether your teams adopt these recommendations. Earn trust with transparency and action. Acknowledge your own anxiety and struggles to help your team feel less isolated. Reduce meetings and take breaks. Educate yourself about systemic problems to build your empathy and make better decisions.

Move to deliverables, not surveillance: As Cate Huston said, “Delete boring meetings;” move conversations from meetings, chat, and email to productivity tools that are persistent, transparent and asynchronous. And moderate conversations and group creation in chat to prevent harm.

Lead or be led

Covid-19 is a reckoning that exacerbates and amplifies systemic inequity in tech, including harm from harassment, mental health, and poor management. The latest generation of employees demands fairness and inclusion by organizing protests, boycotts, and unions — and regulators are right by their sides. They want leaders who are ethical and value-based and “do no harm,” and they will keep pushing with their voices, labor, and dollars until companies finally address these long-standing problems. Every day you wait compounds systemic harm to your workers — especially Black women and nonbinary people — who continue to be forced out of tech.

Yang Hong, McKensie Mack, Ellen Pao, and Caroline Sinders

For more details, please read the full report.

Thank you to Craig Newmark Philanthropies, Omidyar Network, and the Impact Lab of TIME’S UP Foundation for supporting Project Include and our research.

Learn more about the data equity approach and intersectional lens we used.

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Ellen K. Pao

Co-Founder and CEO of Project Include. Author of Reset. Angel investor.