Speaking of Women's Rights: Turbulence in Tech:How Women at Amazon Face Unjust Ultimatums

Monday, October 5, 2015

Turbulence in Tech:
How Women at Amazon Face Unjust Ultimatums

By Samantha Mahool

Thanks to the New York Times article “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace” published in August, it is no secret that the demands made of Amazon employees are drastic, if not callous. While Jeff Bezos scrambled to assure the public of his commitment to employee satisfaction, he also had to address Amazon’s insufficient female leadership and the undue burden faced by working parents.

Amazon requires a dedication from employees that is as unrelenting as it is unreasonable—a requirement especially apparent to employees who are also caregivers. Since women are still the primary caregivers in most families, corporations with such outrageous demands are setting women up to fail. The article details several stories from women who have experienced this system first-hand: One employee was told that “raising children would most likely prevent her from success at a higher level because of the long hours required” and she should seek a less competitive position. Another was explicitly told the day after a miscarriage that Amazon may not be right for her considering she was trying to start a family. And yet another woman was placed on performance-improvement plans as a ridiculous penalty following the loss of a stillborn child. What message does this send to any employee at Amazon who seeks to be competitive in their workforce while also nurturing a healthy family life?

It’s the same message sent to many working parents in the industry—you can’t do both. 

Of course, Amazon’s problem isn’t just the way they treat women; it’s also the fact that they don’t have equality in hiring to begin with. Contrary to the confident and varied faces on Amazon’s diversity page, the company has much to accomplish in terms of parity. While Amazon employs a higher percentage of women than comparable companies (37%), only 18% of leadership positions are held by women. In addition, the top leadership team at Amazon does not feature any women at all. (The paltry percentage of women working in any role at Amazon is still more than other industry leaders such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, Apple, Intel, and Microsoft. Of these companies, Facebook boasts the most women in leadership positions at a meager 23%.)

Unfortunately, these statistics are not surprising, and the demanding office culture brought to light by the Times article is not unique to Amazon, but represents an exaggerated dynamic present in many science and technology jobs. Women workers are often deprived of equal opportunity in the workplace because of harassment, gender stereotyping, and discrimination based on pregnancy and gender identity. And as recently displayed by a tasteless advertisement from an Issaquah-based real estate company, stereotypes of working mothers abound.

While national attention is fixed on Amazon and other similar workplace cultures, now is a great time to push legislative reform for the important economic justice issues faced by women nationwide. Legislators and corporate leadership need to realize that there isn’t just one thing that contributes to the gender wage gap, so there isn’t just one thing that will close it. We need to increase access to family leave and paid sick & safe days, address gender stereotyping that leads to occupational segregation, and support working parents rather than forcing them to choose between a career and a family life.

And we need to call on tech companies to be a part of the solution instead of adding to the problem. Show us an industry leader not just in profits and product innovations, but in the movement to prioritize the representation of women and other marginalized populations. Hire women, believe in women, put women in leadership roles, and through it all, give women the support needed to succeed.

Samantha Mahool is an author and activist based out of Seattle, Washington. In addition to wrangling children as a nanny, Samantha also commits much of her time to volunteer work at various local organizations whose missions reflect her dedication to justice and equality.

Photo courtesy of Viktor Hanacek | PicJumbo