Interview with Amélie Lamonton May 16th, 2016
Recently, product designer Amélie Lamont came forward to share her experiences with racism, sexism, isolation and abuse in the tech industry. Her blog post, “Not a Black Chair,” has since gone viral, and started a number of vital conversations on tech culture, the experiences of women of color in the industry, and how companies are failing their marginalized employees. We sat down with Amélie to discuss her story, toxic work environments, building a support system in tech, and coming forward.
MVC: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us today! To start out with, tell us a bit about yourself! How did you get into tech, what do you do, where are you from?
I’m originally from the Bronx, New York, born and raised. I’m a product designer by trade – I’ve been designing for the past ten years and coding for about as long. I got my first tech job at a small e-commerce startup in 2009. After that, I worked at Apple, made my way to another tech company, and then to Squarespace.
MVC: You recently went public about your experiences at your previous employer, discussing the discrimination, aggression, racism and sexism that you endured there. What has the response been so far?
I published the article about 3 months ago now, and people have just been incredibly supportive. More importantly, I’ve realized this is something that happens to so many people, especially women of color. Writing the article, as scary as it was for me, was good because it also encouraged two other women of color who worked at Squarespace to speak up, who confirmed the toxic environment.
MVC: One aspect of your story that is so common – particularly for women of color – is that you’re supposedly in this tech space of all this opportunity, but you find yourself in a position where you can’t advance, you can’t do your job, there’s no upward mobility.
I’ve experienced the lack of upward mobility at almost all of the jobs I’ve held in tech. At a previous employer, I was the fastest technician on my team. My goal was to join the iOS team but the woman running the department didn’t understand the lifecycle of building and developing an app. There were times when I’d answer questions about iOS that she didn’t know, and that would upset her. At one point, I fell ill and was out for three weeks. During that time, she made moves to block me from joining her team. Turns out that the company was full of this behavior and was hit with a class-action lawsuit a few years after I left.
At Squarespace, I worked in customer care and didn’t receive opportunities to move up and do more. At one point, they brought in a new white male supervisor who had no coding skills, but they invested time in him. They taught him Python and gave him database projects to work on. Confused, I kept thinking, “wait, why did you invest all this time into this man, but not me? I’ve been here raising my hand this entire time.”
It takes a toll mentally and emotionally. You constantly question your self-worth. Many of my ex-coworkers think it’s so cool that I’m a designer now. I was a freelance designer before I started working there. When you’re surrounded by people who constantly put you down, you join them in questioning your own skills and abilities. My experiences have taught me that no matter how much hard work I put in, at the end of the day if I don’t have managers who want me to succeed, I won’t.
MVC: There’s this idea that tech companies are really positive and supportive environments. But not only is support not there for marginalized people, you’ve also talked about how overt aggression, yelling, screaming, and intimidation is common.
At one startup I worked at, we’d check incoming orders, pack them up, and the owner’s wife would run to the packing area and scream at us to pack faster. At Squarespace, the manager who ran my department would regularly yell during meetings, without consequence. Everyone was too intimidated to defy her. That was the type of environment it was.
MVC: It’s funny because so much of our focus on improving tech culture is around subtle bias, microaggressions, unconscious bias – but lots of the discrimination in tech is so overt.
People try to rate sexism and racism on a scale of “overly sensitive” to “actual discrimination”. For example, I once dressed up to go to a company holiday party. A male coworker said to me, “Wow, Amélie, you clean up nice.”
A white guy in tech might just think taking offense is being “overly sensitive”, whereas I would consider his comment to be erroneous. It’s sexism because he had this idea of what a woman should look like. I’m certain that I confused his mental model of what Black women should look like because I didn’t match it.
That scale is so problematic because speaking up about microaggressions means that I’m being “overly sensitive”. Instead, it takes a manager saying, “you’re so black you blend into a chair”, to be seen as “obviously” racist and discriminatory.
MVC: Another part of your experience we wanted to talk to you about, are the dynamics around interoffice relationships, which are so common. So many people have them, but one thing we hear over and over is that somehow, it’s only women who are stigmatized for that.
You spend at least 40 hours a week with the same people. If it’s a startup, even more–about 60 to 80 hours. You’re working late nights and weekends. You don’t have much time for a social life because you get sucked into the fabled startup life. You drink, eat, and stay late with coworkers. Eventually, these people are all you know and lines get blurred. It’s impossible to expect that a relationship is not going to happen.
That’s what happened to me and the guy I had a relationship with at work. It’s funny you mentioned men aren’t stigmatized. He had an office relationship at his last job and ended up leaving because of the drama it caused. Luckily for him, the drama didn’t follow by the time he got to Squarespace, he had a clean slate. He was at liberty to sleep with his coworkers without consequence.
Interoffice relationships get stigmatized because companies stigmatize it, and they often punish the women involved. At one tech company I worked at, you just needed to let HR know. If you worked in the same department, they’d move one of you to a different department. They supported romances between coworkers but also understood that if things were to go sour, it could affect how you feel about work.
MVC: When it comes to the stigma around women having relationships with colleagues in the industry, do you find that that is increased for women of color and especially Black women?
Definitely. It’s potentially more dangerous for Black women because of the one-dimensional stereotypes about us. With Black women, there’s the sexually disempowering stereotype of “jungle fever.” Nevermind that I’m a complex, intelligent person with a variety of interests. That gets tossed out of the window when you’re viewed as having only one use–which is really fucked up.
MVC: One thing your story points to, on so many dimensions, is how HR and management is failing marginalized people. What do you see as the top issues there?
I read something recently saying that many people in management or HR shouldn’t be in those roles because they don’t know how to deal with people.
On top of that, there’s this flowery idea in tech that there’s no racism and that tech is “The Great Equalizer”. That needs to go away. As a Black woman, I am at the bottom of what is valued in society. My great-grandmother was ordered to genuflect and dance for Queen Elizabeth when she visited Jamaica. In America, slavery “ended” 150 years ago. The Civil Rights Movement began 62 years ago. Wounds are still very fresh when it comes to racism. So saying things like “this is 2016, this shouldn’t be happening” is fallacious and further feeds a lie that black women and people of color do not experience discrimination in tech, much less anywhere else in this country. We have so much work to do.
MVC: We find that in these kind of hostile and toxic work environments, women of color are particularly isolated from resources and support. What would better resources, a better support structure look like?
There’s a part of me that wants to say that I hope that HR for companies will be better, but I know better. I’ve spoken to lots of Black people, as well as other people of color about this, and truth-be-told, HR exists for the benefit of the company, not the employee. What really helps me now are the resources I have outside of work–mostly communities I’m a part of. I didn’t know communities for people of color in tech existed until a few years ago.
MVC: Who are some women in the industry who inspire you?
Jasmine Greenaway. Nicole Dominguez. Catt Small. Asia Hoe. Elizabeth Tunstall. Sydette Harry. Christina Xu. Kelsey Gilmore-Innis. Kristy Tillman. Erica Baker. Julie Horvath. Julie is dear to me because it was only after reading her story that I realized maybe I should speak up, too.
MVC: At this point you’ve gone through this scary and intimidating process of coming out about your story in public. There’s so many women in tech who really struggle with whether or not to come forward. Do you have any advice for them?
Don’t be afraid to reach out to other women. They can help you in ways that you may not feel strong enough to do on your own. And you shouldn’t do it alone.
Not every woman is in a situation to not sign a severance agreement, but if I could do it over again, I wouldn’t have signed it. It would have made it easier for me to speak up sooner. The only reason I spoke up now is because I was in a nothing-to-lose situation. I also have an amazing community of friends, who said: “you should speak up, we’ll stand by you, no matter what.”
I would say for other women who are in similar situations, try to weigh the options that you have.
Overall it is scary; maybe speaking up isn’t right for you, but something else is. As long as you find closure and/or a way to heal, that’s what matters most.
MVC: Thank you so so much for talking with us. To finish it off, what are you up to right now, what’s next for you, what are you working on, and is there anything people can do to support you from here?
Right now, I’m looking for a new role as a product designer. You can check out my website and portfolio here: www.amelielamont.com. I’m also working with Catt Small and Jacky Alcine on a project called Good for PoC. It’s a database of tech companies that are good and safe for people of color to work at. We’re launching on June 1, 2016 and you can sign up to the Good for PoC mailing list for updates.