Leaked Apple emails a case study in how to avoid alienating female employees

Your business can be one of the most iconic and admired companies in the world and still have a toxic workplace.

That’s the key takeaway from a new feature by Mic tech reporter Melanie Ehrenkranz, who obtained more than 50 pages of emails from current and former employees of Apple Inc. that collectively paint the Cupertino, Calif.-based tech giant’s offices as a “white, male, Christian, misogynist, sexist environment,” according to one employee who spoke to Mic under conditions of anonymity.

The anecdotes shared by Ehrenkranz, augmented with four interviews, include rape jokes, a condescending job interview, management indifference, and demotion as a solution to workplace harassment, serving as seven vivid lessons in how HR managers should avoid treating female (and minority, and LGBT, and really anyone outside the alpha-male stereoptype) employees.

Lesson 1: Don’t tolerate sexist “jokes”

An engineer on a male-dominated team, “Danielle” told Mic that she had complained about her colleagues’ alienating sense of humour and the company’s “toxic” environment before they started joking that an office intruder was coming to rape everybody – but it was the last straw.

“I do not feel safe at a company that tolerates individuals who make rape jokes,” she wrote in a letter to CEO Tim Cook.

Another employee – unnamed in the Mic article, but let’s call her Vee – described being the lone woman at a meeting with more than a dozen men who joked about their wives and significant others.

“I felt very uncomfortable of the reality that I was the only woman in the room as all of my male coworkers stereotyped women as nags,” Vee wrote, noting that her manager did not take any steps to end the conversation.

Lesson 2: Ensure management listens to employees

Danielle never received a response from Cook, who’s been known to respond to emails from random customers, nor had there been any consequences after she took a month off from work.

“Apparently I’m supposed to return to work as normal? Nothing changes?” she wrote.

Vee arguably had it worse: assigned to late-night shifts, she was often left working alone, long after the office’s motion-sensitive lights had turned off.

“I am working in darkness for the evening hours of my shift,” she wrote, noting that the person closest to her workstation was “nearly six rows of dark, empty offices away.”

Feeling unsafe “as the only female on the floor,” Vee asked management if she be moved to a cubicle closer to another person working in the building.

Her request denied, Vee quit, “trading her position at one of the world’s most iconic companies in favor of a job riding a bicycle,” according to Mic.

Lesson 3: Make sure solutions benefit employees, not harassers

Possibly the most heartbreaking anecdote comes from “Claire,” who actually succeeded in securing an investigation of the harassment she reported (which is unspecified in the article).

After concluding its investigation, Apple admitted that she was indeed working in a hostile environment, and to remedy the situation, it gave her a choice: remain in her position, or take a lower-ranking, lower-paying job with another team.

Claire took the demotion.

Lesson 4: Recognize what sexism looks like – and teach employees how they can prevent it

As mentioned in today’s #CDNWomen Twitter chat, not all workplace sexism takes the form of physical harassment or inappropriate jokes – it can be as subtle as male colleagues asking a woman about balancing a career and family – or a male manager asking a woman under him to smile as she walks past, as happened to Vee.

“While this is a small thing, it was notable as this is one of the most commonly reported forms of subtle sexism,” she told Mic.

Another email, written by a former Apple contractor, described an interview for a full-time position with Apple in which the interviewer started by asking, “You’re not technical, are you?”

“My response to his condescension was to discuss advanced learning theory and the use of metaphor and semiotics along with the theoretical foundations of design patterns,” she wrote, noting that she did not get the job.

Lesson 5: Realize that institutionalized sexism can hurt men too

At least one former male Apple employee sent a workplace harassment complaint to several people at the company, including Cook, Mic found.

“I would consistently be referred to as an emotional man that resembled having the qualities of a woman,” he wrote. “One particular comment that stood out was that I was continually told that I was on my ‘Man Period.'”

Just as minimizing income inequality benefits men as well as women – illustrated by enterprise software provider SAP SE’s recent efforts to achieve pay parity – addressing institutionalized sexism benefits everyone too.

Lesson 6: Promote leadership where you see it

Multiple emails obtained by Mic involved women at Apple discussing being passed over for leadership positions.

“Amanda,” who was part of this thread, told Mic she had never been given an opportunity to apply for two advanced positions she was “more than qualified for.” Neither position was publicly posted, and in both cases her male boss hired other men.

“White male privilege runs unchecked,” another woman wrote. “The worst part is, you don’t know who to trust and who you can reach out to without continued harassment and retaliation.”

Lesson 7: Face allegations head-on

Apple declined to comment on any of the specific claims in Mic’s story, with a spokeswoman saying only that, “Apple is committed to treating everyone with dignity and respect. When we receive complaints or hear that employees are concerned about their work environment, we take it very seriously and we investigate claims thoroughly — as we have each of the matters you describe. If we find behavior to be at odds with our values, we take action. Out of respect for the privacy of our employees, we do not discuss specific matters or their resolution.”

Apple has publicly committed to employing more women and minorities, and according its most recent diversity report, women make up 32 per cent of its global workforce.

But as Ehrenkranz notes, citing a Harvard Business Review study that concluded many woman who pursue engineering end up quitting because of a “hegemonic masculine culture,” companies like Apple aren’t going to see the change they’re looking for if they keep focusing only on hiring more individuals from underrepresented groups.

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Eric Emin Wood
Eric Emin Wood
Former editor of ITBusiness.ca turned consultant with public relations firm Porter Novelli. When not writing for the tech industry enjoys photography, movies, travelling, the Oxford comma, and will talk your ear off about animation if you give him an opening.

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