Uber and tech: Are you listening now?

Uber and tech: Are you listening now?

PhoneBy Lisa Mak

This past Sunday, ex-Uber engineer Susan Fowler published a powerful blog post about the gender discrimination she experienced while working at Uber. It started with her male manager sending her messages, stating that he was in an open relationship and was trying to stay out of trouble at work but couldn’t help it, because he was looking for women to have sex with. Susan sent screenshots of the chat to Human Resources. The response? Uber HR and upper management told her that even though this was clearly sexual harassment, they were not comfortable giving the manager anything besides a warning. The reasons? This male manager was a “high performer” and it was his “first offense,” so they did not want to ruin his career over “an innocent mistake.” The company then gave Susan the “choice” of moving to another team, or staying on the male manager’s team and likely receiving a negative review from him.

When Susan later tried to transfer to other teams, her transfers were blocked due to undocumented “performance” problems. Her performance review was downgraded from a positive to a negative score, and she was told that she needed to prove herself as an engineer.

Presumably Uber, like most large U.S. companies, has a policy encouraging employees to report incidents of discrimination. Each time Susan received a sexist email, she forwarded it to HR. This included emails with her director when he said the company would not order promised leather jackets for the female engineers because they had not been able to get a bulk discount on the women’s jackets as they had for the men’s jackets. When Susan reported this to HR, she was told that maybe she was the problem, that she should not be surprised at the gender ratios in engineering, and that it was unprofessional to report things to HR via email.

Less than a week later, Susan’s manager told her that she was on “very thin ice” for her HR report and could be fired if she did it again. He also said that his threats to fire her for reporting things to HR were not illegal. Susan reported this conversation to HR and the CTO, but again the company did nothing. Susan left Uber for a new job.

After Susan’s blog post went viral, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick suddenly announced that the company is launching an “urgent” internal investigation into the matter, headed by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Some takeaways from Susan’s terrible experience: We need to stop pretending that the tech world is a pure meritocracy, and instead call out the prevalent sexism in that sector. For starters, there’s the numbers issue. On her last day at Uber, Susan calculated that of the over 150 reliability engineers there, only 3 percent were women. Just last month, civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson called out Uber to release its workforce diversity data. Why does a tech company of this size still need to be urged to be transparent about its diversity numbers? And then there’s the cultural issue – a culture that favors men in the STEM fields, that marginalizes women, and blames them when they speak out about misogyny. The problem of victim-blaming is also amplified in the tech space where employees are often on social media, with the risk of being judged by potential employers and targeted by internet trolls. We’ve known about these problems for years. So why hasn’t anything changed?

We also need to fix the double standard that underlies companies’ responses to these complaints. When Susan reported her male manager’s behavior, Uber did not want to ruin his career over a “first offense.” She later learned from other Uber female engineers that it was not, in fact, his first offense. Unfortunately, we’ve seen how companies use this excuse to sweep complaints under the rug, whether in tech or in other sectors. This attitude presumes that a man’s career opportunities are somehow more valuable and worthy of protection than a woman’s workplace rights.

Whether it was the harasser’s first offense or his fiftieth, Uber’s response was out of line as a matter of law. There is no exception to enforcing employment laws based on whether someone’s career and reputation would be “ruined” over claims of harassment and discrimination. It certainly is not a reason to avoid addressing the problem. Employers are legally obligated to investigate all complaints of harassment and to take prompt, effective action to stop it. Forcing the harassment victim to transfer is retaliation, not a remedy. Our laws focus on protecting those who suffer harassment, discrimination, and retaliation, and on eliminating those evils from our workplaces – not on whether the perpetrator will have hurt feelings or a derailed career.

Companies need to start taking complaints seriously, doing fair investigations, and taking appropriate remedial steps at the time these issues are raised. Uber is not some small start-up with five employees stuffed in a garage. It has thousands of employees, an HR department, legal counsel, and a board of directors. Why was nothing done to help Susan until she made her story public?

Uber does not get credit for now conducting an investigation into Susan’s claims, after she has already left the company and after she made a public blog post about her experience. Uber does not get credit for now committing to release its diversity statistics after this incident. Investigating and taking action should have happened long ago, instead of letting the situation spiral out of control. Kalanick’s apology now is simply too little, too late.

It should not take a blog post and public outrage to make a company finally pay attention to employees’ complaints of sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and retaliation. Our laws require companies to treat their employees fairly all the time, every time, not just when it is a PR nightmare.

Lisa Mak

About Lisa Mak

Lisa Mak is an associate attorney in the Consumer & Employee Rights Group at Minami Tamaki LLP in San Francisco. She is passionate about representing employees and consumers on an individual and class basis to protect their rights. Her practice includes cases involving employment discrimination, harassment, retaliation, wrongful termination, labor violations, and severance negotiations. Ms. Mak is the Co-Chair of the CELA Diversity Committee, Co-Chair of the Asian American Bar Association’s Community Services Committee, and an active volunteer at the Asian Law Caucus Workers’ Rights Clinic. Ms. Mak is a graduate of UC Hastings School of Law and UC San Diego. She is fluent in Cantonese and conversant in French.

Election aftermath: The road ahead

Election aftermath: The road ahead

photo-1445365813209-5ab6d8f397cbWhen I was in law school, a white male student ran for a position in our student body government. In his campaign statement, he said that if elected, he would eliminate funding for the school’s minority organizations and use the money to “blow lines” off the taut stomachs of Southeast Asian boys. At a town hall meeting, this man still did not seem apologetic and told us to lighten up, that it had just been a joke. Many minority students, including yours truly, were outraged. When people ask why I became a civil rights lawyer and involved in progressive causes, I cite that incident as one of several defining moments. Because it was heartbreaking that someone in San Francisco these days would still think that racist jokes were acceptable, and that some people didn’t think it was a big deal.

The election results brought new heartbreak. Whatever theories emerge about the outcome, one thing remains clear – there is still so much to be done to protect our civil rights. If you think we are safe from racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia in this country, think again. If you think that the laws we have in place offer enough protection to prevent unfair treatment, think again. If you think that there are too many complaints about discrimination and harassment, think again.

Our state’s public policy is clear:

“It is hereby declared as the public policy of this state that it is necessary to protect and safeguard the right and opportunity of all persons to seek, obtain, and hold employment without discrimination or abridgment on account of race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, sexual orientation, or military and veteran status.

It is recognized that the practice of denying employment opportunity and discriminating in the terms of employment for these reasons foments domestic strife and unrest, deprives the state of the fullest utilization of its capacities for development and advancement, and substantially and adversely affects the interests of employees, employers, and the public in general.”

Discrimination in any form adversely affects us all. It’s not a joke, and it’s definitely a big deal. People who come to my office are not litigious by nature – they have suffered real harm and mistreatment in the workplace simply because of who they are. Because their skin is not white. Because they are women. Because they were not born in this country and speak imperfect English. Because of who they pray to. Because they are perceived as too old or too disabled to work. Because they love their same-sex partner. Because of these and other immutable qualities that are supposed to be embraced and protected under our laws and under human decency.

If you think we’ve progressed to be more inclusive, look harder at what this nation has revealed about itself. And look harder at the work that needs to be done. Now more than ever, we need to continue seeking justice, fair treatment, and equal opportunities for all.

Lisa Mak

About Lisa Mak

Lisa Mak is an associate attorney in the Consumer & Employee Rights Group at Minami Tamaki LLP in San Francisco. She is passionate about representing employees and consumers on an individual and class basis to protect their rights. Her practice includes cases involving employment discrimination, harassment, retaliation, wrongful termination, labor violations, and severance negotiations. Ms. Mak is the Co-Chair of the CELA Diversity Committee, Co-Chair of the Asian American Bar Association’s Community Services Committee, and an active volunteer at the Asian Law Caucus Workers’ Rights Clinic. Ms. Mak is a graduate of UC Hastings School of Law and UC San Diego. She is fluent in Cantonese and conversant in French.

Silencing the survivors: How the Brock Turner case reflects the failures of our justice system

Silencing the survivors: How the Brock Turner case reflects the failures of our justice system

Woman1By Lisa Mak

Like many others, I was outraged by the outcome of Brock Turner’s case for his rape of an unconscious, intoxicated woman behind a dumpster.  This woman was brave enough to go through the process of a 16-month criminal case.  She wrote an extremely powerful and heartbreaking statement that she read in court when addressing how Turner’s assault has forever changed her life.  Prosecutors had sought a six-year prison sentence for Turner’s crime.  Yet Judge Aaron Persky only imposed six months of prison with probation, stating that a longer sentence “would have a severe impact” on Turner and that Turner “will not be a danger to others.”

Unfortunately, this painfully skewed result, the biased way the case was portrayed, and the outrageous statements from Turner’s family and friends defending his actions, are all too familiar features of a system that often does not treat rape and assault for what they are – violent, heinous crimes that violate basic human dignity.  The events and reactions in the Turner case remind me of cases I’ve litigated where employees were sexually harassed, assaulted, or raped in the workplace.

It seems like the same story every time.

The victim is blamed and doubted.  Questions may be asked about whether she was somehow responsible for what happened.  Were you drunk at the company party?  Why did you enter his hotel room to talk about work?  Have you ever sent a risqué email at work?  Did you date that co-worker? Why can’t you remember all the details?  Are you sure the relationship wasn’t consensual?  Investigations into workplace sexual harassment complaints may not happen, or when they do, they may be conducted in a way that is slanted against the victim.  Given the difficulty of coming forward, it is unsurprising that many sexual harassment cases go unreported.

The perpetrator is protected.  He is given the benefit of the doubt.  He may receive little to no discipline for his misconduct.  The victim is advised that everyone is “moving on” from the situation.  To add insult to injury, often employees who complain about sexual harassment will be fired in retaliation.  For example, in her lawsuit against Tinder in 2014, co-founder Whitney Wolfe alleged that she was forced out of the company after her complaints of discrimination and harassment.

There is often a mistaken focus on the impact on the perpetrator’s career and reputation, as opposed to the physical and psychological impact on the victim.  When former Dean of Berkeley Law School Sujit Choudhry was accused of sexually harassing his executive assistant, university officials were allegedly reluctant to terminate him for fear of ruining his career.  He was never in fact terminated, and resigned after a lawsuit was filed against him earlier this year.

Similarly, when Turner’s father pleaded for leniency for his son, he ignorantly argued: “[Turner’s] life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve.  That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.”  This, compared with the life of the woman Turner raped, who explained: “My independence, natural joy, gentleness, and steady lifestyle I had been enjoying became distorted beyond recognition.  I became closed off, angry, self deprecating, tired, irritable, empty … You bought me a ticket to a planet where I lived by myself.”  Yet Judge Persky remained concerned about the “severe impact” a longer prison sentence would have on Turner, the convicted criminal.

Whether sexual assault happens at work, at school, in a home, or anywhere else, the same infuriating narratives keep surfacing – blaming the victim, doubting the crimes, and protecting the perpetrator.  Language is used to downplay the severity of the attacks.  Turner’s friend, Leslie Rasmussen, submitted an equally outrageous letter of support for him for trial, writing: “[W]here do we draw the line and stop worrying about being politically correct every second of the day and see that rape on campuses isn’t always because people are rapists.”

This isn’t about being politically correct.  This isn’t about alcohol or promiscuity or the tarnished futures of privileged individuals who chose to violate the rights of others.

This is about calling out sexual harassment, assault, and rape for what it is.  This is about respecting women and human beings and common decency.  Cases like Brock Turner, along with the many cases of workplace sexual harassment we see, underscore the need to focus on the consequences caused by the perpetrator and not on rationalizations for the violent conduct.  When survivors of assault and harassment are able to come forward and speak their truth, their courage should always be met with an outcry of support and a fair chance at justice.

Lisa Mak

About Lisa Mak

Lisa Mak is an associate attorney in the Consumer & Employee Rights Group at Minami Tamaki LLP in San Francisco. She is passionate about representing employees and consumers on an individual and class basis to protect their rights. Her practice includes cases involving employment discrimination, harassment, retaliation, wrongful termination, labor violations, and severance negotiations. Ms. Mak is the Co-Chair of the CELA Diversity Committee, Co-Chair of the Asian American Bar Association’s Community Services Committee, and an active volunteer at the Asian Law Caucus Workers’ Rights Clinic. Ms. Mak is a graduate of UC Hastings School of Law and UC San Diego. She is fluent in Cantonese and conversant in French.

Tis the season: Giving thanks for new employment protections

Tis the season: Giving thanks for new employment protections

By Lisa Mak

In the spirit of the holidays, here’s a round-up of five legal developments that California workers and their advocates can be thankful for this year.

Fair Pay Act

In October 2015, Governor Brown signed the California Fair Pay Act to give our state the strongest equal pay protections in the nation.  In 2014, a woman working full-time in California still earned an average of only 84 cents to every dollar a man earned – a wage gap that has remained unchanged for nearly a decade. The new law mandates equal pay for “substantially similar work,” instead of the old outdated language requiring equal pay only for “equal work on jobs” at the “same establishment.” Thus, male and female employees are now entitled to equal pay if they perform comparable work, even if they have different job titles or work in different offices at a company. The new law also requires that any legitimate, non-gender based factors that employers rely on to explain gender wage differences must be “applied reasonably” and “account for the entire wage differential.” The Fair Pay Act also prohibits retaliation against workers who seek to enforce the Act or who inquire about the wages of other employees. This new law empowers women to challenge unfair pay practices and gives advocates new tools to combat the gender wage gap that has persisted in this state for far too long.

Protecting Reasonable Accommodation Requests

AB 987 was passed in July 2015 to explicitly affirm that workers who request reasonable accommodation based on religion or disability are protected from retaliation under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). The legislation was passed in response to a misguided California appellate court’s decision in Rope v. Auto-Chlor System of Washington, Inc. In that case, the employee was fired after requesting a work accommodation so that he could donate his kidney to his ailing sister. The court held that accommodation requests did not constitute a protected activity sufficient to support a FEHA retaliation claim. This decision threatened to overturn years of legal interpretation that protected workers’ rights to request accommodations. With the passage of AB 987, we can now be sure that workers have legal protection if they request an accommodation from their employer due to disability or religion.

Increased Wage Theft Protections

To help combat pervasive wage theft in this state, SB 588 was passed to authorize the California Labor Commissioner to file a lien or levy on an employer’s property to assist employees in collecting judgments for unpaid wages. According to a 2013 report by the National Employment Law Project and the UCLA Labor Center, only 17% of workers who prevailed in their wage claim at the Labor Commissioner’s office were able to receive any payment between 2008 and 2011. Workers who did receive payment were able to collect only 15% of what was owed. The new law also provides that any employer or any person acting on behalf of an employer who “violates, or causes to be violated,” regulations regarding minimum wages or hours and days of work, may be on the hook for wage theft. Workers and their advocates now have significantly stronger tools to go after employers who try to evade liability by shifting responsibility to other companies or by refusing to pay their judgments.

Scrutiny Of Misclassification In Shared Economy Companies

In June 2015, the California Labor Commissioner ruled that a driver for Uber was an employee, not an independent contractor, and ordered the company to pay her back for work-related expenses. In August, the California Employment Development Department determined that a former Uber driver was an employee and was entitled to receive unemployment benefits. Then in September, a federal judge in San Francisco ruled that Uber drivers could proceed as a class action in a lawsuit over whether the drivers should be classified as employees or independent contractors. The class action alleges that Uber failed to pass on tips left for drivers. Although the classification issue for Uber drivers and other similar workers is not yet settled in California, it reflects the willingness of the state’s legal authorities to scrutinize misclassification issues and enforce labor rights in the evolving world of shared economy businesses.

Cost-Shifting To Employees Only If FEHA Lawsuit Frivolous

Previously, employees who lost on their Fair Employment and Housing Act claims could be required to pay the employer’s legal costs. Since these costs could be substantial, workers could be discouraged from trying to vindicate their workplace civil rights out of fear of having to pay if they lost their lawsuit. However, now after the California Supreme Court’s decision in May 2015 in Williams v. Chino Valley Independent Fire District, an employee who loses his or her FEHA claims in a lawsuit will not have to pay the employer’s legal costs on those claims unless the employer shows the claims were frivolous. This new standard can help reduce some of the financial risk for employees seeking to enforce their rights.

These developments reflect our state’s continuing trend of protecting working people, low-wage workers in particular, from exploitation and unfair treatment. Although there’s always more advocacy to be done, we have these positive steps to celebrate for this year.

Lisa Mak

About Lisa Mak

Lisa Mak is an associate attorney in the Consumer & Employee Rights Group at Minami Tamaki LLP in San Francisco. She is passionate about representing employees and consumers on an individual and class basis to protect their rights. Her practice includes cases involving employment discrimination, harassment, retaliation, wrongful termination, labor violations, and severance negotiations. Ms. Mak is the Co-Chair of the CELA Diversity Committee, Co-Chair of the Asian American Bar Association’s Community Services Committee, and an active volunteer at the Asian Law Caucus Workers’ Rights Clinic. Ms. Mak is a graduate of UC Hastings School of Law and UC San Diego. She is fluent in Cantonese and conversant in French.

On to the next battle — employment equality for LGBT workers

On to the next battle -- employment equality for LGBT workers

By Lisa Mak

 


Last Friday, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage across America.  This historic decision was a momentous step forward in advancing equality for the LGBT community, but the fight for equality is far from over.  What’s next?

The first battleground is to achieve recognition on a national level that the right to work free from discrimination is a fundamental civil right.  According to a report published last month by the Movement Advancement Project, 61 percent of the LGBT population live in states with medium or low legal protections, or that have hostile laws that restrict their rights.  This includes insufficient to non-existent protections in the employment area, as the report specified that 52 percent of the LGBT population live in states that do not prevent employers from firing them based on their sexual orientation.  Imagine: an employee exercises her Constitutional right to marry on a Saturday, and then on Monday gets fired for doing so.  Or for placing a wedding picture on her desk, talking about her spouse, or expressing her sexual identity in any way.  Outrageously, this could be the reality for the majority of LGBT employees in this country.

Employment discrimination against LGBT workers is undeniably still a prevalent problem.  A 2013 survey from the Pew Research Center found that 21 percent of people surveyed said they had been treated unfairly by an employer based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.  The percentages were markedly higher for transgender employees and LGBT people of color.  A 2013 report authored by various organizations found that nearly 50 percent of black LGBT employees reported experiencing discrimination at work due to their sexual orientation.  Between 75 and 82 percent of Asian and Pacific Islander LGBT employees reported workplace discrimination as well.  Such discrimination can include the failure to hire or promote LGBT workers, workplace harassment, unequal wages, and the lack of on-the-job support – the same kinds of employment rights that other minority groups have been advocating for in the workplace for decades.

Despite these realities, according to data from the Human Rights Campaign, only 19 states currently have laws that prohibit workplace discrimination based on both sexual orientation and gender identity.  Another three states prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, but not gender identity.  Ten states have employment protections based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity only for public employees, which does nothing for private sector workers.  And in 18 states, LGBT employees still have no employment protections at all.  That lack of protection is just another form of denying equality for employees.

The situation is even bleaker at the federal level, although progress is being made. Yet there is still no federal statute that protects employees based on sexual orientation or gender identity.  The proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that would prohibit such discrimination has been introduced in Congress each year since 1994, but has never mustered enough Republican support to make it to the President’s desk.  Last year, House Speaker John Boehner openly expressed his disapproval of ENDA, telling the LGBT Equality Caucus that there was “no way” the legislation would pass that year.  Boehner stated that the bill was “unnecessary” because “people are already protected in the workplace.” Boehner’s statement and others like it demonstrate just how out of touch key members of Congress are with the kind of discrimination LGBT workers face.

Gainful employment instills a sense of purpose and dignity, and increases meaningful contributions to our communities.  Our anti-discrimination laws are in place to correct the traditional exclusion of marginalized groups – such as women, older workers, and racial minorities – and to ensure equal employment opportunities.  It is time to fully add LGBT employees to that list.  Whether single or married, they should not be penalized in their careers or livelihood for exercising their right to work.

It’s time for Congress to pass ENDA at the federal level and for State legislatures to implement or expand laws to protect LGBT employees.  Work must continue in every arena, including in those States where there are already such laws, such as California, where agencies and attorneys should bring critical cases to strengthen enforcement.  Finally, businesses should work to create an inclusive workplace for LGBT employees through policies, practices, and training.  Many companies have already done so, but others continue to flaunt their willingness to discriminate.

As Justice Kennedy wrote in the Obergefell decision, in seeking the right to marriage, same-sex individuals asked “for equal dignity in the eyes of the law.”  We should continue to recognize this dignity by continuing to address the gap in legal employment protections for the LGBT community.

Lisa Mak

About Lisa Mak

Lisa Mak is an associate attorney in the Consumer & Employee Rights Group at Minami Tamaki LLP in San Francisco. She is passionate about representing employees and consumers on an individual and class basis to protect their rights. Her practice includes cases involving employment discrimination, harassment, retaliation, wrongful termination, labor violations, and severance negotiations. Ms. Mak is the Co-Chair of the CELA Diversity Committee, Co-Chair of the Asian American Bar Association’s Community Services Committee, and an active volunteer at the Asian Law Caucus Workers’ Rights Clinic. Ms. Mak is a graduate of UC Hastings School of Law and UC San Diego. She is fluent in Cantonese and conversant in French.

Wage theft still on the menu in the restaurant industry

Wage theft still on the menu in the restaurant industry

Plate of Money

By Lisa Mak

Making the headlines this week was a landmark $4 million backpay and compliance settlement for 280 current and former workers at the popular Yank Sing restaurant in San Francisco.  Last summer, a group of Yank Sing employees, with the help of the Chinese Progressive Association and the Asian Law Caucus, complained that the owners of Yank Sing engaged in a slew of labor violations, including theft of wages and tips, failure to pay minimum wages and overtime, and denying workers their meal and rest breaks.  The violations, according to California Labor Commissioner Julie Su, were “pretty blatant.”

Unfortunately, employee wage theft and labor violations are very common in the restaurant industry.  For example, workers brought claims last year against a Los Angeles restaurant, Izakaya Fu-ga, for wage theft, failure to provide breaks, and retaliation against workers who asserted their rights.  An announcement is also expected soon regarding a settlement with restaurants in the El Mercadito complex in the Los Angeles Boyle Heights neighborhood that will pay $220,000 in back wages to workers and provide improved sick and vacation leave.

The Yank Sing crackdown is a good reminder that people serving us our food often make too little to put food on their own table.  Aljazeera recently covered the issue in its “Fault Lines” series, highlighting the prevalence of wage theft in the restaurant industry.

Lisa Mak

About Lisa Mak

Lisa Mak is an associate attorney in the Consumer & Employee Rights Group at Minami Tamaki LLP in San Francisco. She is passionate about representing employees and consumers on an individual and class basis to protect their rights. Her practice includes cases involving employment discrimination, harassment, retaliation, wrongful termination, labor violations, and severance negotiations. Ms. Mak is the Co-Chair of the CELA Diversity Committee, Co-Chair of the Asian American Bar Association’s Community Services Committee, and an active volunteer at the Asian Law Caucus Workers’ Rights Clinic. Ms. Mak is a graduate of UC Hastings School of Law and UC San Diego. She is fluent in Cantonese and conversant in French.

Love shouldn’t hurt or get you fired

Love shouldn’t hurt or get you fired

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By Lisa Mak

Today is the last day of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, so let’s take a moment to reflect on the prevalence of domestic violence in our country.  The press has no shortage of coverage on the issue when celebrities are involved, such as the recent leak of a video showing NFL player Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée in an elevator.  However, the press largely ignores the real-world challenges faced by domestic violence victims.  One challenge is maintaining employment while trying to get out of an abusive relationship.  In most states, a domestic violence victim can still be fired due to the abuser’s conduct, based on an employer’s misguided safety or productivity concerns.

This is one of the shocking things I learned during my two years as a volunteer counselor on a domestic violence hotline.  During that time, I counseled many victims who had different reasons for hesitating to leave the abusive relationship.  Some victims were still in love with their abuser, or were too afraid of the violent aftermath if they tried to leave.  Some cited a lack of a support network, as their partner had isolated them from family and friends.  Still others were financially dependent on their abuser, who prevented them from working or had sabotaged every job they ever had.

In 2013, Carie Charlesworth, a teacher in San Diego, brought national attention to the economic vulnerability of domestic violence victims when she was fired after her abusive ex-husband invaded her workplace and placed the school on lockdown.  Even though Charlesworth had a restraining order against her ex and had called the police, the school still fired her for safety concerns – essentially punishing her and her 4 children for her partner’s crime by taking away her livelihood.

As a result, Charlesworth became a strong proponent of SB 400, a new law protecting domestic violence victims from job termination.  Enacted in 2013 and effective this year, SB 400 changed Labor Code sections 230 and 230.1 to prohibit an employer from firing or discriminating against an employee based on his or her known status as a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking.  The law also requires employers to provide reasonable safety accommodations for victims at the workplace, such as changing a phone number or relocating an employee’s desk.

With this new law, California joined 6 other states – Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, New York, Oregon, and Rhode Island – to specifically protect DV victims from employment discrimination.  But that means that in 43 other states, there is still no protection or recourse for victims who are fired because of their status.  That is appalling, considering that on average, approximately 20 people per minute in the U.S. are victims of physical violence by an intimate partner.  About 1 in 4 women will experience some form of domestic violence in her lifetime.

For many victims, maintaining stable employment is critical for escaping the abusive relationship and for supporting themselves after leaving their partner.  A 2012 study reported that 74 percent of women nationwide stayed with an abusive partner for a longer time due to economic reasons.  In California, studies have shown that nearly 40 percent of DV survivors were fired or feared termination due to domestic violence.  Laws like SB 400 protect victims who are often in a very vulnerable financial position.  We need such laws in every state.

Some states do allow victims to take time off work for DV-related issues, such as obtaining a restraining order or testifying in court.  But those laws are woefully inadequate.  What good is it when an employee has a restraining order in hand but no job to go back to?  How will she support herself while trying to be financially independent from her abuser?

Even without such laws, companies would be well-served by implementing policies to protect such vulnerable employees.  Intimate partner violence is not just a “family” problem – it’s also a business issue.  Employees who suffer from domestic violence or workplace harassment by their partner understandably may miss more work and be less productive.  If the abuser visits the workplace, this could also be extremely disruptive to a company’s operations.  Yet surprisingly, a 2006 study found that over 70 percent of U.S. workplaces did not have a formal program or policy addressing workplace violence.  Even in those private sector workplaces that did have such programs, less than half addressed DV issues.

Firing victims of domestic violence does more than take away the financial security that can allow victims to leave their abuser.  It also perpetuates the stigma of abuse and discourages other victims from reporting their experiences.  It re-victimizes them and takes away the last shred of self-worth they may have.

It takes an incredible amount of courage for DV victims to exit their abusive relationships.  Let’s not make it harder by putting their employment at risk too.

 

Lisa Mak

About Lisa Mak

Lisa Mak is an associate attorney in the Consumer & Employee Rights Group at Minami Tamaki LLP in San Francisco. She is passionate about representing employees and consumers on an individual and class basis to protect their rights. Her practice includes cases involving employment discrimination, harassment, retaliation, wrongful termination, labor violations, and severance negotiations. Ms. Mak is the Co-Chair of the CELA Diversity Committee, Co-Chair of the Asian American Bar Association’s Community Services Committee, and an active volunteer at the Asian Law Caucus Workers’ Rights Clinic. Ms. Mak is a graduate of UC Hastings School of Law and UC San Diego. She is fluent in Cantonese and conversant in French.

Tinder on fire: How women in tech are still losing

Tinder on fire: How women in tech are still losing

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By Lisa Mak

A “whore,” “gold-digger,” “desperate loser,” and “just a bad girl.”  These are only a handful of the sexist comments that Whitney Wolfe, co-founder of the mobile dating app Tinder, alleges she was subjected to by chief marketing officer Justin Mateen.  Last month, Wolfe brought suit against Tinder for sex discrimination and harassment.  Wolfe’s legal complaint details how Mateen sent outrageously inappropriate text messages to her and threatened her job, and how Tinder CEO Sean Rad ignored her when she complained about Mateen’s abuse.  Wolfe claims that Mateen and Rad took away her co-founder designation because having a 24-year-old “girl” as a co-founder “makes the company look like a joke” and being a female co-founder was “slutty.”

The conduct, which Wolfe’s complaint characterizes as “the worst of the misogynist, alpha-male stereotype too often associated with technology startups,” unfortunately remains the norm, and Wolfe is not alone in her experience.  Last year, tech consultant Adria Richards was fired after she tweeted and blogged about offensive sexual jokes made by two men at a tech conference.  After one of the men was fired from his job, Richards experienced horrendous Internet backlash, including rape and death threats.  She was then fired by Sendgrid after an anonymous group hacked into the company’s system in some twisted attempt at vigilante “justice.”

In 2012, junior partner Ellen Pao filed a sexual harassment suit against a venture capital firm, alleging retaliation after refusing another partner’s sexual advances.  And back in 2010, Anita Sarkeesian was the target of online harassment after she launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a video series to explore female stereotypes in the gaming industry.  An online video game was even released in which users could “beat up” Sarkeesian.  These are just some of the many examples of demeaning attacks against women in the testosterone-driven tech world.

There are many state and federal laws that prohibit the kinds of workplace harassment that these women experience, including the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, the Bane and Ralph Act, and the California Constitution.  These laws provide strong protections against gender harassment in employment and other contexts.  So why do these attacks on women continue to happen in an industry that is supposedly progressive and populated with fairly educated adults?

It doesn’t help that tech companies are also notorious for their lack of diversity.  This year, Google released its first diversity report which revealed that 70 percent of its workforce was male, and 61 percent was white.  The workforce was also predominantly male and white at Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter, and LinkedIn.  Another report this year shows that the percentage of women occupying CIO positions at companies has remained stagnant at 14 percent for the last decade.  These numbers confirm what the stories reflect — that this industry truly is “a man’s world.”  And this needs to change.

Some may dismiss Wolfe’s lawsuit and similar complaints as coming from women who are hypersensitive.  Indeed, Wolfe claims that when she complained about Mateen’s harassment, she was dismissed as being “annoying” and “dramatic.”  While some degree of social adaptation may be expected when joining any company, particularly freewheeling start-ups, there are limits that must be respected.  Those limits are crossed when the pressure to conform to a white, male norm is so great that women who challenge this norm are further harassed or their voices suppressed.

Unfortunately, this marginalization of women who challenge the macho culture even comes from other women, who blame the “feminists” for making it harder for women to advance in tech.  This also needs to change.  Women who speak out about sexism and misogyny in the tech industry deserve the support of their colleagues, and men who turn to vitriol and juvenile behavior to intimidate deserve censure.

But change will not be achieved without help from sources outside the industry.  Attorneys and employee advocates must continue to bring attention to the rampant sexism that is “business as usual” in the tech industry.  We need to encourage tech companies of all stages and sizes to comply with employment laws, adopt proper HR practices, promote diversity and inclusion, and use objective standards to measure performance.  If the tech industry is serious about encouraging young girls to become coders and developers, it also needs to place women in conspicuous leadership roles and pay real attention to changing the “guy culture.”

The tech world doesn’t have to be a man’s world, and it shouldn’t be.

Lisa Mak

About Lisa Mak

Lisa Mak is an associate attorney in the Consumer & Employee Rights Group at Minami Tamaki LLP in San Francisco. She is passionate about representing employees and consumers on an individual and class basis to protect their rights. Her practice includes cases involving employment discrimination, harassment, retaliation, wrongful termination, labor violations, and severance negotiations. Ms. Mak is the Co-Chair of the CELA Diversity Committee, Co-Chair of the Asian American Bar Association’s Community Services Committee, and an active volunteer at the Asian Law Caucus Workers’ Rights Clinic. Ms. Mak is a graduate of UC Hastings School of Law and UC San Diego. She is fluent in Cantonese and conversant in French.

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