Content Warning: The following article contains mentions of sexual harassment, rape culture and suicide that may be disturbing to some readers.
On July 20, 2021, the State of California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) filed a lawsuit against Activision Blizzard for allegations of sexual harassment, discrimination and unequal treatment against its female employees.
Activision Blizzard’s workforce is only about 20% female. The high-level executive positions in the company are predominantly held by white males. Female employees are rarely ever promoted to leadership positions, and even if they are, they receive less salary, pay incentives and overall compensation compared to their male counterparts. This is evidenced by the company’s own records.
Female employees in the company are promoted slower and terminated quicker than male employees, being steered toward the lower levels of the company’s hierarchy. This denies them the opportunity to be assigned leadership responsibilities or lucrative projects that would have aided promotions. Often, women have been overlooked for promotions despite being in the organization for a long time. By contrast, men hired after them were often promoted before them.
Not only that, female employees are often delegated responsibilities of their male counterparts, with no added compensation, while they played video games for long hours. Supervisors have a tendency of micromanaging female employees. Women of color are doubly vulnerable to these practices. They are often being severely criticized over minor errors, while their male counterparts regularly walked away scot-free in similar situations.
Further discrimination was levied against female employees during their pregnancies, often in the form of receiving negative evaluations during maternal leave and disregard toward their medical restrictions. Others have mentioned being criticized for leaving to pick up their children while their male colleagues played video games. Some even claimed to have been kicked out of lactation rooms for other employees to hold meetings in them.
Female employees have likened working at Activision Blizzard to working in a “frat house”. The toxic workplace culture has allowed male employees to subject female employees to several sexual comments and advancements, non-consensual touching and groping, among other forms of sexual harassment with little to no repercussions. Male employees have been known to play videogames on the clock, come to work hungover, engage in banter about their sexual encounters and make numerous rape jokes and derogatory comments about female bodies.
One of the more harrowing allegations made refers to the practice of “cube crawls”, which means the male employees would consume copious amounts of alcohol and then crawl through the cubicles in an inebriated state, engaging in inappropriate behavior with female colleagues.
Complaints regarding these issues have long fallen on deaf ears. Complaints were either not taken seriously, made non-confidential, or outright dismissed by Human Resources (HR). HR representatives are known to be close with the harassers, enabling their behavior. Complaints not kept confidential have resulted in retaliation against the complainant.
In one particularly tragic incident, a female employee committed suicide while on a company trip allegedly due to a sexual relationship with her male supervisor. An employee confirmed that the deceased may have been facing other forms of sexual harassment at work before her death, specifically an incident involving male employees passing around an image of her vagina during a company party.
The fallout from the lawsuit has been swift and brutal. Fans have been vocal about their disapproval. Many vow to never purchase another game from the company if changes aren’t made and are bringing forward demands to end long-standing sexism rampant in the gaming industry.
The initial response from the company called the allegations “inaccurate” and “distorted”. A statement from Activision Blizzard claimed that the DFEH had “rushed to file an inaccurate complaint” without adequate investigation or good faith discussions, implying that the DFEH had not given the company the opportunity to make amends before taking matters to court.
The CEO of Activision, Bobby Kotick, has since apologized, acknowledging the response as having been “tone deaf”.
Employees threatened a mass walkout in protest of the company’s response to the lawsuit. The open letter contains 3,000 signatures, of the company’s approximately 9,500 employees along with four demands to ensure stoppage:
- An end to mandatory arbitration in employee contracts
- More diverse recruiting and hiring practices
- Publication of compensation data, promotion rates and salary ranges
- A company-wide diversity, equity & inclusion task force empowered to hire a third party company to audit Activision Blizzard
On Wednesday, July 28, 2021, employees held a walkout at the Blizzard headquarters. Others participated via remote work stoppages. Employees responded to Kotick’s letter saying they are “pleased to see that our collective voices… have convinced leadership to change the tone of their communications.” They further claim that, “Today’s walkout will demonstrate that this is not a one-time event that our leaders can ignore. We will not return to silence; we will not be placated by the same processes that led us to this point.”
Game developers across the world have shared messages of solidarity with the walkout.
As of August 11, 2021, the following list of high-level executives have left the company:
- Blizzard president, J. Allen Brack
- Blizzard head of HR, Jesse Meschuk
- Diablo 4 game director, Louis Barriga,
- Lead level designer, Jesse McCree,
- World of Warcraft designer, Jonathan LeCraft
- Alex Afrasiabi, former senior creative director of the popular franchise “World of Warcraft” has also been terminated from the company after he was mentioned by name in the lawsuit for being a prolific harasser.
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