When Cindy Warner joined Amazon Web Services in February 2020, she saw it as an opportunity to increase diversity and reshape the company’s strategy. She recalls how AWS “aggressively” recruited her, offering a quick path to higher-level roles and better pay.
But just over a year after she joined, the promising job had become a nightmare.
Warner, a tech executive with 30 years of experience, said she had faced pay discrimination and an underlying culture of sexism and homophobia. She sued the cloud computing company in May 2021 – alleging that male executives at AWS treated her with “open contempt, insults, and hostility” and upheld a “white boys’ club” – and claims she was fired shortly after.
“I truly would not want my worst enemy to work at Amazon,” she told the Guardian, describing the workplace as “toxic” and alleging she was targeted for her work mentoring women and efforts to increase diversity and inclusion.
Her lawsuit is one of several Amazon is currently facing over allegations of workplace discrimination, and it underscores the challenges women face from the bottom to the top of the tech industry.
“This shows at Amazon, it does not matter if you have a lot of power on paper – the culture is going to impact you regardless of whether you are a high-powered executive or a lowly software engineer,” said Veena Dubal, a labor law professor at the University of California, Hastings. “At the end of the day, you are not really protected.”
An Amazon spokesperson, Jaci Anderson, said the company disputed Warner’s account and that it had conducted a thorough investigation and “found her allegations to be unsubstantiated”. (Warner has criticized the integrity of the AWS investigation.)
Anderson said Warner’s characterization of the circumstances under which she left AWS was “not accurate”, saying Warner had been encouraged to find another role within the company before her employment was terminated.
“Amazon strives every day to be a top employer for women and historically underrepresented minorities,” Anderson said. “We continue to make progress in building a more diverse workforce, with a focus on increasing the representation of women in technical roles.”
Sexism at AWS: ‘It was everywhere’
Warner started her role in February 2020 as a “global leader” in Amazon’s professional services group, ProServe, which promotes the company’s cloud-computing technology to corporate customers.
Amazon, like many tech companies, categorizes workers into tiers of responsibility and pay. Warner was one of few female executives at her level in the department, she said, and according to the lawsuit she was hired at a lower tier than she felt she qualified for.
Warner said she had quickly detected a “pervasive” culture of sexism. “It wasn’t just one person, it wasn’t just one group – it was truly everywhere,” she said.
Warner alleges in the lawsuit that although the role was below her level of experience, she was repeatedly blocked from applying for promotions because of her gender, resulting in lost income of “millions of dollars”.
Amazon disputes that Warner was promised a path to a higher-level role and said employees do not “apply” for promotions but are instead advanced through an internal review process.
Warner claims that her male peers and colleagues frequently dismissed and harassed her. In one incident named in the suit, a colleague at AWS allegedly called Warner “disgusting names such as a ‘bitch’, an ‘idiot’, and a ‘nobody’”.
Amazon claims its investigation found the account of “derogatory language” was untrue, and that the words cited in the suit were not used.
Rather than being disciplined, the lawsuit alleges, the male AWS employee who berated Warner was ultimately promoted into the same role she had been discouraged from pursuing. Warner, meanwhile, remained at a lower position and compensation.
“Amazon allows its managers, again seemingly in a misguided effort to protect the bottom line, to run amok and mistreat employees, particularly women and people of color, even when they arrive near the top of the Company’s corporate ladder,” said Lawrence Pearson, an attorney at Wigdor LLP, the firm behind the suit.
Warner said her misgivings about the company culture had begun to solidify after a former employee, Laudon Williams, published a blogpost on LinkedIn in August 2020 entitled “Why I Left AWS”.
In the post, he outlined a number of systemic discrimination issues at Amazon Web Services, claiming he had “personally heard an [executive-level employee] using homophobic language”.
He also cited a “well-known incident in professional services” in which a leader told a diversity group that they needed to stop making excuses and “integrate better”. Williams claimed AWS “shows no interest in addressing the issues”.
Anderson, the Amazon spokeswoman, said the company had investigated and was unable to substantiate issues raised in the post.
The post had prompted “quite a blowup” internally, Warner said. But instead of reflecting on the allegations, Warner said, the company had gone on the defensive. One Black employee who brought up the blogpost to executives was “verbally assaulted” for rocking the boat. That woman was ultimately “so demoralized” she quit the role and relocated to another section of Amazon, Warner said.
Warner described such responses as typical for the company.
“I have never in my career seen a company so unwilling to be introspective – a company that has such outrage instead of self-reflection in the face of criticism,” she said.
Amazon disputes the account of backlash to the LinkedIn post, saying nobody was “verbally assaulted” when it was brought up to leaders in a workplace meeting, but that the employee in question was discouraged from discussing it at that time.
Warner is not alone
Warner’s suit is the latest in a growing number of cases lifting the veil on sexism at all levels of Silicon Valley. It comes just six years after the tech investor Ellen Pao brought a gender discrimination lawsuit against her former employers at the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins – one that “paved the way for whistleblowing in Silicon Valley”, according to Dubal.
“As more people whistleblow, they are seeing how these issues are interconnected in many ways,” Dubal said. “And that could have a lasting impact on whether these companies actually change the culture.”
Directly after Pao’s case, Tina Huang filed a suit against Twitter alleging its promotion system unfairly favored male employees, and the former Facebook employee Chia Hong filed a suit against Facebook alleging sexual and racial discrimination.
In December 2020, Pinterest paid a record $20m settlement in a gender discrimination suit brought by a female executive who alleged “rampant discrimination, hostile work environment, and misogyny” at the San Francisco company.
And Warner isn’t the only one alleging bad behavior at Amazon. The law firm handling her case is currently pursuing lawsuits from five other employees, including Charlotte Newman, an Amazon Web Services senior manager who has alleged both sexism and racist behavior.
Newman, who is Black, claims in her lawsuit that Amazon fails to promote Black employees, and recounts being “groped” by a director at the company during a work dinner.
Amazon said it had reviewed Newman’s career path at the company and determined “she was properly placed in her role”. Her harassment allegations were “immediately” investigated and the assailant she identified was fired, according to Anderson.
But lawyers for Newman and Warner said these processes were not swift or thorough enough: “Women and employees of color at all levels of Amazon have had their complaints of harassment and discrimination brushed under the rug,” Pearson said.
Amazon said this characterization of its processes was “not accurate” and that its code of conduct and ethics established a zero-tolerance policy regarding discrimination or harassment.
The recent wave of complaints has prompted a backlash within Amazon. The LinkedIn post from Williams, as well as Warner’s suit, were cited in an internal petition at Amazon Web Services that was signed by more than 1,000 employees in July 2021, demanding an independent investigation to be completed by November.
In response, the AWS chief executive, Adam Selipsky, emailed the petition’s authors to confirm the company would investigate the allegations through an outside firm, though he did not commit to a timeframe. Anderson, the Amazon spokesperson, said that investigation was continuing and that a date for completion had not been confirmed.
The scrutiny of Amazon Web Services has put Andy Jassy – a former AWS executive who took over for Jeff Bezos as CEO of Amazon in July 2021 – under the microscope.
Warner said she had written Jassy directly about her plight in an attempt to save her job, but the letter was “all but ignored”. Amazon has said HR leadership responded to her letter and asked her to conduct communication through attorneys “as is common practice during active litigation”.
“The fact that Jassy was promoted from a particular sector at Amazon that was known to have a culture of misogyny and sexism does not speak well for the direction the company is going,” Dubal, the law professor, said.
Asked about Jassy’s leadership, LaDavia Drane, the head of inclusion, diversity and equity at AWS, said that the Amazon division “has always operated with the belief that more diverse teams create better outcomes”.
“Our organization is continuing to push every day to create a more inclusive culture, and that includes us pushing forward to actively invest in and retain women within our organization,” she said.
Warner said she continued to receive inquiries from former employees at Amazon and other tech firms asking for advice on similar allegations. Nearly six months after filing the lawsuit, she is still job hunting, saying the experience left her wary of entering similar roles in the tech industry.
“After what I would consider has been a very storied career, this has been a horror show, and I relive it every day,” Warner said. “When you go through something like this, it really changes you. It doesn’t go away.”