Leaked emails show a high-profile engineer left Amazon after filing sexual harassment claims to HR in 2018. Now she's speaking out about what she calls a 'toxic' work culture for women. (AMZN)

2018 01 28T120000Z_1223899922_MT1IMGCNPBU74600331_RTRMADP_3_CHINA EMTECH CHINA.JPGReuters/Han jingyu

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A high-profile Amazon executive filed multiple sexual harassment complaints to the company's HR department in 2018 against a male manager before ultimately leaving the company that same year. An in-house investigation did not substantiate her claims, but the former employee recently took to Twitter to call on the company to fix its "harassment culture" — and lift the confidentiality obligations imposed on current and former employees' ability to publicly talk about sexual harassment allegations.

Anima Anandkumar, a principal scientist formerly at the Amazon Web Services cloud unit, made repeated claims of her male colleague verbally and physically abusing her at work, according to internal emails obtained by Business Insider. 

Her harassment complaints, filed in early 2018, resulted in an internal investigation led by Swami Sivasubramanian, VP of Amazon AI. But the senior male colleague who she accused of bullying and making sexist remarks didn't face any serious consequences, remains at the company, and has been promoted since then, according to internal emails and people familiar with the matter. 

Sivasubramanian, a senior executive in charge of running AWS's artificial intelligence team, initially told Anandkumar at the time of the 2018 complaints that he was "quite unhappy" about the male colleague's alleged behavior and he would provide him "aggressive feedback," according to the emails. 

Now, Anandkumar, who is currently a director of machine learning research at Nvidia and a computer science professor at Caltech, is speaking out about the sexist work environment she says she saw at Amazon.

In a series of tweets last week, Anandkumar said Amazon has a "toxic work culture" that makes female employees feel "helpless" at work. She said that her "harasser" continues to work at Amazon and was even promoted shortly after she filed her complaints. 

"No longer will I be silent about toxic work culture at @awscloud Every woman in my org has since left. Multiple women filed harassment along with me. Nothing happened," Anandkumar tweeted last week.

The bigger goal of Anandkumar's tweets appears to be aimed at making Amazon lift the non-disclosure agreements over personal harassment cases. Alphabet, for example, announced last week it would loosen the NDA restrictions that prevent its employees from publicly discussing sexual harassment claims.

"Sadly @awscloud is a toxic place for #WomenInSTEM Please fix it. Ban NDAs. Make actions taken transparent. #MeToo," she tweeted.

Tweet Embed:
//twitter.com/mims/statuses/1309853794293952512?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
Meanwhile in my previous company my harasser continues to work and was promoted to VP shortly after I filed my claim and left. @awscloud where is your morals and ethics? https://t.co/vrCTceLB3O

 

The newly public callout by Anandkumar sheds even more light on the male-dominated work culture at Amazon that has come under fire in recent years. 

Amazon Studios chief Roy Price stepped down in 2017 following sexual harassment charges, while CEO Jeff Bezos has faced frequent criticism, both internally and externally, for the lack of gender diversity in the company's upper ranks. According to the company's latest figures, men accounted for 72.5% of all global managerial positions at Amazon.

The allegations also come at a time when the broader tech industry is grappling with its macho image, punctuated by recent controversies at companies like Google and Uber. Just last week, Google's parent company Alphabet settled a shareholder lawsuit over sexual harassment cases, and announced sweeping changes over the way it treats sexual discrimination charges.

Anandkumar didn't provide a comment for this story. Sivasubramanian didn't respond to a request for comment. In an email to Business Insider, Amazon's spokesperson denied Anandkumar's claims, saying the company's investigation found her allegations to be meritless.

"At the time these allegations were raised, Amazon HR conducted a thorough investigation and concluded that the facts did not support the vast majority of Ms. Anandkumar's claims, including the most serious allegations. Multiple witnesses directly refuted Ms. Anandkumar's allegations and in other cases, evidence in email and other records demonstrated that certain claims were simply false," the spokesperson said in a statement.

'Need protection'

Anandkumar is a high-profile engineer in the machine learning space, and has often made public speeches about artificial intelligence, including at the TEDx Talks conference. She also has a history of driving change by speaking out against gender issues in tech. In 2018, she was one of the leading voices that helped change the name of NIPS, a prominent artificial intelligence conference, to NeurIPS, citing the former title's sexual connotations.

But her fight for change at Amazon wasn't as successful, despite having made disturbing claims about her colleague.

She accused the male co-worker of allegedly intimidating her in meetings, both physically and verbally, and offending her with sexist remarks about her appearance and female employees in general, according to Anandkumar's complaints seen by Business Insider.

In one of the emails sent to Amazon's HR manager and Sivasubramanian, the executive overseeing the artificial intelligence team, Anandkumar said the colleague harassed her with late night calls and text messages, and that she was "scared" to continue working with him. After requesting a manager change, Anandkumar said she started working from cafes instead of going into the office, so she could avoid the colleague.

"I AM SCARED OF HIM AND NEED PROTECTION FROM HIM," Anandkumar wrote in one of the emails to senior leadership. "He was allowed to screw up my team and intimidate everyone."

At first, Sivasubramanian told Anandkumar that he was "appalled" by her allegations, and that he would take appropriate actions to address the issue, according to one of the emails. He appears to have stopped directly corresponding with Anandkumar as the investigation progressed.

"First of all, I want to make sure there is no ambiguity: What [NAME REDACTED] said to you is not OK," Sivasubramanian said in the email. "I have serious issues and need to aggressively coach him."

It's unclear what kind of coaching took place. Amazon didn't share many details after the investigation concluded, and didn't disclose what actions it had taken to address the issue. Anandkumar left Amazon in August 2018. The senior male colleague was later promoted to a VP position. 

Amazon's spokesperson told Business Insider that the company made certain arrangements for the allegations they were able to confirm.

"We took appropriate action for any findings that were confirmed," the statement said.

Anandkumar and her colleague appear to have been kept on the same project and in the same office space even after the complaints were filed, although they were ordered not to interact with each other.

In one email, Anandkumar told the company that the no-contact policy was practically meaningless given they're still working in the same office space, and asked to put the senior male colleague on a leave of absence instead. Amazon later asked the colleague not to attend the meetings with her, after Anandkumar made the request, emails show.

"The integrity of the investigation is seriously compromised if he is allowed to come in [meetings] during the investigation and intimidate his victims," Anandkumar wrote in one of her emails. 

Anandkumar shared other details about her discomfort at previous companies, without identifying any company or manager names, in a blog post last year.

Jeff BezosMandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

'Demoralizing'

Some people who spoke to Business Insider questioned Anandkumar's credibility, pointing to the company's decision to ultimately not punish the senior male colleague. Others said the male colleague has previously made intimidating and condescending remarks, saying there's a lot of discontent even among current team members. 

However, current and former Amazon employees told Business Insider that the company still has a long way to go to fix what they perceive as a broader sexist culture.

Several female employees at Amazon told Business Insider accounts of sexism where they felt discriminated against by their male managers. Their stories range from being ignored in meetings or having to tolerate sexist jokes, and often being passed over in promotion opportunities. These people said this part of Amazon's culture could be more prevalent at the company's AWS business, since the business software industry has long been more male-oriented.

In fact, multiple Amazon employees shared their own accounts of sexism in an internal document published in June, in an effort to add "inclusion" to the company's famous leadership principles, as previously reported by Business Insider.

In one case, a male boss allegedly called his female employee a "c***" in front of others at a dinner event. That person is still in charge of a team of over 40 people, although the female employee has filed a complaint with HR, the document said.

One person wrote that a manager berated a female engineer for trying to "lower the bar" when she asked him to interview more women for job openings. Another female engineer was told by a male colleague that Amazon was hiring more women "regardless of their skill sets."

Another person wrote that, in a 2019 leadership training class, only 6 or 7 people out of the 60 participants were women. Meanwhile, one female engineer says she was told by her male manager that she doesn't have what it takes to get promoted, and that she should instead "start looking for a rich husband."

Amazon's lack of diversity in the senior management roles is "demoralizing," several female employees told Business Insider. Until last year, the only female member in CEO Jeff Bezos's 20 or so top executive team, called the "S-team," was human relations chief Beth Galetti. A former employee said that the company's HR team is internally called the "pink ghetto" because it's the only team dominated by women.

Amazon's spokesperson said the company doesn't tolerate any kind of discrimination and stressed that it investigates all claims of harassment reported through HR or anonymous company channels. 

"Amazon works hard to foster a culture where inclusion is the norm for each and every one of our 800,000+ employees," the statement said. "Diverse teams help us think bigger, and differently, about the products and services that we build for our customers and the day-to-day nature of our workplace."

Bezos addressed the diversity issue during an internal all-hands meeting in 2017, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by Business Insider. When an employee asked why the S-team has so few female or minority leaders, Bezos said he expects any change to happen "very incrementally over a long period of time" because of the team's low turnover.

Over the past year, Amazon has added three new female executives to Bezos's S-team, including its first black member, Alicia Boler Davis. Amazon also has a more diverse board of directors, with half of them women.

In her blog post last year, Anandkumar wrote that she's much happier at the two organizations she now works for — Nvidia and Caltech. She also said her former colleague at Amazon continues to intimidate her at conferences, but she's determined to not let that affect her work, as she doesn't want others to go through what she did.

"I am not afraid," she wrote in the blog. "And I will keep fighting until my last breath."

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SEE ALSO: Amazon's robotics boss pushed for more pay before his sudden departure, as startups look to poach execs frustrated with its compensation structure

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