Florida-based augmented reality startup Magic Leap, which has prided itself on near-total secrecy, has been accused of sweeping sexist discrimination and blatant misogyny under the rug as well. A lawsuit, filed yesterday in Southern Florida District Court by former marketing head Tannen Campbell, alleges the company fostered a hostile work environment for women, and that top leadership actively obstructed attempts to alleviate the problem and reprimand offenders.
The complaint, available here and on Business Insider, is full of unsettling anecdotes. It alleges that executives as high-up as co-founder and CEO Rony Abovitz were fully aware of discriminatory behaviors, but did not attempt to remedy the problem or take advice from Campbell and other team members. Abovitz allegedly preferred to defer to other members of his leadership team, who Campbell says rarely addressed the complaints and often ignored the issues altogether. Magic Leap declined to comment on active litigation.
“Stay away from the Three Os: Orientals, Old People, and Ovaries.”
So far, the conversation over Magic Leap has focused on the state of its much-praised but rarely seen technology — recent reports suggest that it’s encountered technical problems miniaturizing its augmented reality glasses, and former employees have complained about general management problems. Magic Leap is already embroiled in a lawsuit with an employee it says stole company secrets.
But beyond overall allegations of a hostile environment that routinely undervalued female employees, some specific behaviors described in the lawsuit border on parody, depicting a culture almost surreally oblivious to its own gender issues. Here are a few of the complaints:
“Orientals, old people, and ovaries”
One alleged incident, dated to late 2016, involves a training session for new hires. When a female hire asked IT support lead Euen Thompson a question, he “responded, ‘Yeah, women always have trouble with computers.’” Women in the group apparently asked him to repeat himself. “In IT we have a saying; stay away from the Three Os: Orientals, Old People, and Ovaries,” he allegedly replied.
“We need the white guys. They’re important.”
Campbell says she immediately brought the incident to upper management, but heard nothing until two weeks later. Then, this happened:
Chief Administrative Officer [Henk] Vlietstra spoke to Campbell and told her that he understood what Thompson did was very offensive, but Thompson was both humiliated and sorry and would not be allowed to do the new hire orientation in the future.
Campbell asked Vlietstra why Magic Leap hadn’t fired Thompson and Vlietstra responded that he couldn’t fire Thompson because he was African-American and there were white men who had done ‘far worse’ and if Magic Leap fired Thompson, he could sue them because he had been fired, but not the white guys.
Campbell, outraged, asked, ‘Why not fire them all?’ Vlietstra answered: ‘Because we need the white guys. They’re important. We need them. I know you’re upset, but my hands are tied.’ Later, Thompson resumed giving new hire orientations.”
The complaint alleges that Magic Leap employees repeatedly spoke with the assumption that women were stay-at-home wives or “objects,” and pointedly excluded or did not mentor female employees, who composed a tiny portion of employees. When Campbell made suggestions to improve the company’s gender split, or discussed her own future at the company, she was allegedly put off, ignored, or talked over in a way that male employees weren’t.
“Beautiful ladies” shouldn’t wear headsets
The complaint alleges more direct chauvinism, including a call between Magic Leap CFO Scott Henry, head of operations Tina Tuli, and the leadership team of major advertising company R/GA.
“During the call, Henry said of the product under development, ‘I’m sitting here between two beautiful ladies. They’re not going to want to put a big ugly device over their pretty faces. And I have an office with glass doors, I don’t want people to see me with these beautiful girls with ugly things on their faces.’”
Male and female R/GA executives were allegedly offended by the remark.
Ignoring input from female employees
The complaint contends that not only were attitudes at Magic Leap hostile toward women, they actively hurt product development. A group of female employees apparently proposed several prototype tweaks to better fit typically female clothes and hairstyles: changing wire placement would make it easier to wear with a ponytail, for example, and the headset’s belt pack might not work as well for the many women who don’t wear belts.
Plans for appealing to women allegedly stopped at a pink Magic Leap
But according to the lawsuit, their suggestions were never taken seriously. This suggests a stark contrast with Microsoft’s competing HoloLens headset, whose design is specifically meant to work with a variety of haircuts and head sizes.
Overall, the filing portrays the company as baffled by women:
“All the engineers and others in predominately-male Magic Leap could conceive of to make the product female-friendly was to produce a version in pink.”
This extended to its game developers, who apparently didn’t realize they were building outdated misogynist stereotypes into their work:
“One of the only three or four core apps that will ship on Magic Leap’s standard headset is a game, ‘Dr. G.,’ that has no female heroes or lead characters and the one female character, who is in the game backstory, but not the game itself, is a busty woman depicted on her knees groveling at the heroes’ feet in admiration. During her tenure with Magic Leap, Campbell complained repeatedly and to no avail to the game’s developer that the game was misogynistic.”
A “macho bullying” culture
Campbell even says that company culture problems delayed the headset launch date four times over the course of a year and a half.
“Magic Leap’s corporate culture is one of macho bullying, where women’s work and ideas, including those of Campbell, are ridiculed openly and their opinions are ignored in favor of those of their male counterparts.
The macho bullying atmosphere at Magic Leap fosters a dysfunctional culture which creates chaos and lack of process and structure [and] hinders the company from achieving key product deadlines (including launch, which has shifted back at least 4 times in Campbell’s 1.5 years at the company.)”
There’s obviously no love lost between Campbell and Magic Leap — among other things, the complaint describes company leadership as “Abovitz syncophants” and Abovitz himself as “pouty and prone to temper-tantrums.” The tech industry in general has many more male employees than female ones, especially in executive positions. But if the incidents listed here occurred, this goes far beyond most discrimination complaints. And it’s yet another sign that all might not be well at Magic Leap.