Warning: This article discusses harassment, sexual assault, and suicide.
Following more than two years of investigation, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing has filed a lawsuit against Activision Blizzard Inc. for fostering an environment that serves as a “breeding ground” for harassment and discrimination against women. The lawsuit presents a long-awaited milestone and a case for hope, both for Activision employees and those in the gaming community. As of yesterday, more than 2,000 current and former Activision Blizzard employees have signed a petition calling the company’s response to the lawsuit “abhorrent and insulting.”
The DFEH began investigating Activision in 2018 when it first received notice of “violations of the state’s civil rights and equal pay laws.” The organization’s main concerns included discrimination based on sex (affecting compensation, promotions, and termination), harassment, and retaliation.
The lawsuit’s description of Activision’s culture as “frat boy”-like is an apt one, if not a little tame. In it, the DFEH describes a variety of downright abhorrent behaviors that range from unfair to blatantly criminal in nature. “Male employees proudly come into work hungover, play video games for long periods of time during work while delegating their responsibilities to female employees, engage in banter about their sexual encounters, talk openly about female bodies, and joke about rape,” the lawsuit reads. Women who work in the office are subjected to “cube crawls,” during which male employees drink alcohol and then visit various cubicles while engaging in inappropriate behavior toward female employees. According to the lawsuit, a number of female employees have experienced severe emotional distress or left the company after enduring sexual harassment and discrimination. The harassment has also had deadly repercussions: One woman took her life on a work trip, during which her supervisor brought along sexual paraphernalia in the hopes of coercing her into bed with him. According to another employee, the woman’s suicide followed other workplace sexual harassment, including the dissemination of the woman’s nude photos among coworkers.
Despite girls and women constituting nearly half of American gamers, only 20 percent of Activision Blizzard’s workforce is made up of women. According to the lawsuit, very few women ever reach top roles at the company, and those who do receive less total compensation than their male counterparts. Some women are even denied promotions based on the possibility that she may choose to start a family, go on maternity leave, and decide she “liked being a mom too much.” This discrimination extends further to female employees of color, who specifically are required to write up one-pagers on how they’d spend their PTO before PTO can be approved, and whose body language is continuously criticized while their male counterparts slouch in their seats. When any of these issues were brought to HR or management, they were ignored or met with empty promises to investigate further. This is no surprise, given that Activision’s CTO has also been accused of groping inebriated women at company events and hiring women based on their appearances.
Activision executive Fran Townsend reacted to the lawsuit Friday by sending out a company-wide email calling the DFEH’s allegations “factually incorrect, old, and out-of-context” and insisting Activision values inclusion. In response, over 2,000 current and former Activision employees have signed a letter expressing disappointment with both Townsend’s claims and the company’s history of failing to hold abusers accountable. Most recently, CEO Bobby Kotick announced the company would be hiring a third-party law firm to review its policies and help to implement those that would promote a respectful workplace. The announcement dovetails an organized walkout scheduled for Wednesday, during which the company will reportedly offer employees paid time off.
Ideally, none of these incidents would have occurred in the first place. But the lawsuit does offer a tiny glimmer of hope for those who believe in and strive toward workplace equity in the gaming industry. With consequences (hopefully) comes action, and between employees’ organization and the untallied financial and injunctive relief sought by the DFEH, Activision is sure to face fallout.
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