Report: Amazon Falls Short on Gender Equity

Report: Amazon Falls Short on Gender Equity

A new report from the Free & Fair Markets Initiative (FFMI) examines female employees’ experiences at Amazon — which touts itself as a corporate leader in diversity and inclusion. The group’s analysis of government, corporate and legal records, “Amazon’s Unfair Deal of the Day: Undercutting Women,” was released today.

The report details several civil employment lawsuits filed by women who worked at Amazon alleging discrimination and unlawful firing after taking leave protected by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). It also finds that 78 percent of senior leadership roles at Amazon are occupied by men, and that administrative support is the only division where women represent a majority. Further, of the 10 people who report to CEO Jeff Bezos, only one — Beth Galetti, the head of human resources — is a woman.

These findings come amid a larger conversation among policymakers in Washington, D.C., state lawmakers and Silicon Valley companies about what steps — if any — major tech firms should take to increase the number of women in leadership positions. Experts say that while Amazon’s record on gender equality is comparable to its peers in the tech sector, the company’s rhetoric on gender equity doesn’t match the reality of its business practices. 

“Instead of pledging to create symbolic affinity groups, Amazon should conduct an independent audit of its gender equality policies and prescribe specific measures the tech giant can take to bring its workplace into the 21st century,” said Robert Engel, chief spokesman of FFMI. “Nothing is stopping Amazon from making changes to its hiring process that would level the playing field. Why doesn’t it set measurable goals for diversity across the company and make its progress public?”

The report’s review of litigation filed by women against the company detailed several cases of company officials allegedly retaliating against women for using the FMLA to take unpaid, job-protected leave for serious medical issues. Many were fired after Amazon concocted pretexts for their terminations, according to interviews with several women.

“We have seen this in many employment law cases. This conduct is obviously intentional and designed to send a message to other employees that the use of FMLA leave puts your job at risk,” said W. John Gadd, an attorney for Linda Donelson, a former Florida-based Amazon employee who sued the company in Dec. 2017. Her case is pending. 

Amazon approved Donelson for FMLA leave for two months last spring for a diabetes-related condition, according to court filings. After her return, superiors told her she would be terminated after her leave resulted in “negative hours.” She protested to a human resources contact, who told her Amazon made a coding mistake tracking her hours, and to check back within a week. At a later meeting with supervisors, company superiors doubled down and told Donelson her termination would stand. Amazon also contested her filing for unemployment benefits.

In another case, Amazon managers informed a woman, who suffered from breast cancer, that she was being placed on a “performance improvement plan” and risked termination because “difficulties” in her personal life interfered with fulfilling her work goals, according to a report in the New York Times.

Amazon has taken some steps to address the issue. It announced in a May SEC filing a policy to “include diverse candidates, including women and minorities, for all director openings.” Amazon, though, opposed a similar proposal in April in a proxy statement: Given its “commitment to equality and the nature of our business ... the policy requested by the proposal would not be an effective and prudent use of the company’s time and resources.”

Some experts say claims that increasing gender equity will improve corporate financial performance are flimsy, but firms may still benefit from doing so to retain and recruit the best workforce.

“Rigorous, peer-reviewed studies suggest that companies do not perform better when they have women on the board. Nor do they perform worse,” according to Katherine Klein, a professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.

Whether adding female directors or employees will improve the company’s already amazing track record of profitability, the company will continue to face a growing chorus for it to align its employee demographics with its corporate-culture aspirations.

Although Amazon declined comment, the company has highlighted its recently strengthened family leave policy, offering four weeks pre-partum leave, leave share for employees to share their parental leave with their partner and “Ramp Back,” which includes eight weeks of a flexible return to work schedule. Steve Winter, Amazon’s director for global programs and services, detailed Amazon’s policies in a blog post announcing that more than 11,000 U.S. employees used their new leave policy.

“[T]hese numbers and the responses we’ve received from employees mean the policy is working. As a father and an Amazonian, I’m really proud of the work my team has done on behalf of new parents at Amazon,” Winter wrote. 

The company will soon have a high profile chance to take action: Amazon will select a community for its second headquarters by the end of the year, meaning at least 50,000 new employees. Bloomberg Businessweek reported that Amazon is considering gender diversity in the process. The Washington, D.C. area, where Bezos has a home and owns The Washington Post, would position the company close to federal policymakers. It’s also the only U.S. metro area besides Chicago that’s above average on key metrics: female-to-male ratio among programmers and female participation in the workforce.

Perhaps Bezos, who has frequently tangled with President Donald Trump, won’t want to pass up a chance to “Make Washington, D.C. Great Again.” 

Jeff Patch is a Des Moines-based business and economic policy writer at Iowa Intelligence. He is also an analyst with Capital Policy Analytics, a Washington, D.C.-based economic research and consulting firm.

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