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Remote Work Is Leading To More Gender And Racial Harassment, Say Tech Workers

Many tech workers say they have experienced more harassment, hostility and anxiety while working remotely during the pandemic.
Wilfredo Lee
Many tech workers say they have experienced more harassment, hostility and anxiety while working remotely during the pandemic.

Tech workers say they have experienced more harassment based on gender, age and race or ethnicity while working remotely during the pandemic, according to a survey from a nonprofit group that advocates for diversity in Silicon Valley.

The increases were highest among women, transgender and nonbinary people, and Asian, Black, Latinx and Indigenous people.

For example, more than 1 in 4 respondents said they experienced more gender-based harassment. That figure increased, when race and gender identity were accounted for, to 39% of Asian woman and nonbinary people; 38% of Latinx woman and nonbinary people; and 42% of transgender people.

The survey of nearly 3,000 people around the country was conducted between May and February by Project Include, an advocacy group founded by Ellen Pao. Pao is a tech investor who in 2012 sued her then-employer, the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, over gender discrimination. Pao lost that lawsuit and has since become a leading advocate for diversity in tech.

Pao said she wanted to do the survey when she heard early in the pandemic about people complaining of more harassment at work — even though they were no longer in the office.

"There's the assumption that once everybody went separately and you were protected in your own home, that you wouldn't see the same level of harassment," she said. "It turned out that actually wasn't the case."

Harassment, in the survey's definition, includes behavior such as yelling, uncomfortable or repeated questions about identity and appearance, and requests for dates or sex.

Workers surveyed also reported increases in workplace hostility, defined as behavior that is less abusive than harassment and may not break company rules, but still creates a harmful environment.

Women of color were the most likely to report increased race-based hostility, including 45% of women who identified as African, African American or Black and 30% of women who described themselves as Asian or Asian American. Also, 14% of the respondents reported increased age-based harassment.

Pao said the survey responses suggested that some of the increase in harassment and hostility may be the result of people working longer hours, the blurring of boundaries between work and home life, and more conversations where other office mates aren't present as witnesses.

"There's more one-on-one interaction when you're not in the office," Pao said. "People are seeing more harassment on chat and on email and on video conferencing."

Many of the software tools remote workers rely on, such as video chat and messaging apps, "were not designed to mitigate harassment," said Caroline Sinders, a researcher who studies online harassment and worked on the Project Include survey. For example, they may not have easy ways built in to flag inappropriate behavior or content and report it to management or human resources.

The survey also showed an increase in anxiety overall as people have shifted to working from home — a whopping 85% of people said they were more anxious. Nearly two-thirds reported working longer hours.

At a time when many tech companies have said they will allow people to keep working remotely at least some of the time, Pao said workers need more specific guidelines. She also recommends giving workers more flexibility in how, and when, they work. And, she said, companies need to confront problems that existed before the pandemic but have been exacerbated in the last year.

"It's time for companies to address all of the harms that are caused by bias, by racism, by sexism, by transphobia," Pao said.

"How do we actually get to the root of these problems? It's not by giving people a wellness app."

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Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.