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More than two dozen Dropbox employees say they’ve witnessed or experienced gender discrimination at the company, according to documents VentureBeat obtained and multiple current and former employees speaking on condition of anonymity.

In December 2020, a source familiar with the matter sent VentureBeat a document containing anonymous interviews with 16 current and former Dropbox employees who allege gender discrimination at the cloud computing company. The report alleging discrimination began circulating internally after its author sent it to Dropbox employees throughout North America on December 9. Compiled by a former Dropbox researcher, the report was not commissioned by Dropbox executives and is strongly contested by the company.

“When I first read the email, when the report was sent out, I started crying,” Source 1, who said she had experienced discrimination with regard to promotion at Dropbox, told VentureBeat. “I was frustrated and almost livid that so many other people were experiencing it, too. I really hoped that my personal experience was a one-off, and it was jarring and really upsetting to see so many things that could have been my story.”

The subjects of the report alleging discrimination point to examples such as “changing standards for promotions, unequal compensation, being set back in their careers after maternity leave, and experiencing retribution when they take their cases to HR.” The report also detailed instances of alleged harassment and demotion after employees filed a complaint with Dropbox HR or returned to work following maternity leave.

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Internal communications VentureBeat obtained indicate that more than a dozen Dropbox employees agreed with the report’s conclusions.

VentureBeat spoke with five current and former Dropbox employees, who all described experiences similar to those detailed in the report. People cited in the report and quoted in this story spoke on condition of anonymity due to fear of retaliation. Gender discrimination and cases of retaliation against people who report discrimination — the kind that can breed toxic workplace culture and counteract gains made through recruiting and hiring — have been reported at many tech companies, including Google, Microsoft, Pinterest, and Uber. In 2014, VentureBeat ran a story on Dropbox employees who alleged hiring practices and company culture that disadvantaged women.

In an interview with VentureBeat on Thursday, Dropbox officials said the claims in the December 2020 report alleging discrimination weren’t consistent with the company’s data. Following that conversation, Dropbox sent VentureBeat the following statement: “We would never want anyone to have the experiences described in the report, let alone at Dropbox. We thoroughly review all claims when they are brought forward, and have found no evidence of systemic discrimination.”

Shortly after speaking with VentureBeat on Thursday about allegations of gender discrimination, Dropbox released its 2020 diversity report, which it says back up its claims. In it, the company says that women have been promoted at a higher rate than men for the fifth consecutive year. The report also said representation for women at the managerial level and above increased from 35% in 2019 to 37% in 2020.

Stalled promotions and career advancement

How companies choose to promote their employees is a major influencer of company culture and worker sentiment. A 2018 Harvard Business Review survey of more than 400,000 U.S. workers found that people who believe promotions are handled properly are twice as likely to plan a long-term future with a company and 5 times as likely to believe company leaders act with integrity.

Sources speaking with VentureBeat criticized Dropbox’s promotion process, which they say is largely dependent on the mood and influence of their manager, rather than merit.

Multiple sources told VentureBeat they believed their own promotions were delayed and claimed that people who identify as men are promoted at faster rates than those who identify as women. The majority of women interviewed for the report alleging discrimination also identified as women of color and talked about a need to work twice as hard to achieve the same level of career advancement as male colleagues, putting them at increased risk of burnout. The report does not discuss the experiences of non-binary Dropbox employees.

Dropbox uses a leveling system for promotions, from L1 for the most junior employees to L10 for cofounder and CEO Drew Houston. People familiar with the matter told VentureBeat that based on this system, they believe they should have been promoted years ago and that for some women, hiring and promotion seems to hit a ceiling around L3.

“I have consistently, in my promotion cycles, had documentation that I have overperformed but have not been given an opportunity for promotion based on my time at the company,” Source 1 told VentureBeat. “And that is a common theme I’ve heard among other coworkers as well, that oftentimes women are brought in at lower levels and have a harder time moving forward to the appropriate levels even if they’re performing at or above their level.”

A Dropbox spokesperson told VentureBeat it has been company policy to verbally disclose leveling at the time a person is hired for at least two years, but the majority of women interviewed for the report said Dropbox did not disclose their initial level at the time they were hired.

Source 2 described finding out she was under-leveled. “About six months in, I realized that I was severely under-leveled. I was doing the same work as the people next to me, but was paid a full level below, probably coming out to like an $80,000- or $100,000-a-year difference,” she said. “It feels like this really bad-faith thing to say, ‘OK, just because you don’t know about leveling, we’re gonna screw you over.'” She added that she could not find a way to remedy the situation once she became aware of it: “No one was willing to help me rectify it.”

“Ultimately, there are two blockers to career growth for women at Dropbox: leadership accountability, and HR accountability,” the report reads.

Lack of HR support

The report includes 15 accounts of alleged discrimination that employees say were reported to HR but left unaddressed. And the women interviewed for the report unanimously agreed that instances of discrimination employees witnessed or experienced firsthand went unaddressed after being reported to HR.

While their experiences varied, multiple current and former Dropbox employees who spoke with VentureBeat also said the company failed to initiate meaningful action in response to discrimination complaints brought to the HR team.

Source 3 said they felt supported when in direct conversations with HR but that they have yet to see real change following those conversations.

Source 4 suggested that the company tended to see reported incidents as anomalies, rather than evidence of a systemic problem.

“I personally think that the way HR handles these issues [is] a big part of the problem,” Source 4 said. “It kind of goes back to even if you have bad seeds or whatever and the company doesn’t want to blame it on a cultural issue — I think that HR enables those bad seeds.”

Many of the current and former employees VentureBeat interviewed said the report made them feel seen.

“It was like being un-gaslit, I guess,” Source 2 said of reading the report. “I’ve been telling people, you know, I have this weird experience with HR, I had this weird experience with a manager. And people would always say — like HR or other men I worked with or more senior women would always be like, ‘I think you misinterpreted the situation’ or ‘you know, are you sure that it wasn’t your behavior’? All of us have a story,” she said.

To address accountability concerns, the report recommended that Dropbox implement a number of changes, including an external investigation of HR practices and the formation of a board of employees who are not in senior leadership positions to guide and monitor HR processes.

Dropbox’s diversity initiatives

Dropbox launched a program called Project Maia in July 2020 to increase retention rates among female and underrepresented minority (URM) employees. The grievance report says Dropbox identified 200 women as high flight risks and had their managers host “stay interviews.” The report claims these interviews put the employees at further risk since many already felt they could not openly share concerns with the managers in charge of their performance reviews and potential promotions.

Current and former Dropbox employees who spoke with VentureBeat also agreed with the report’s conclusion that the company’s diversity initiatives have required underrepresented minority groups and women to do additional, unpaid labor to make Dropbox a more inclusive company.

For example, the company’s LEAD program identifies high-performing employees interested in becoming leaders for career development and professional growth courses. But people who spoke with VentureBeat and those cited in the report about gender discrimination at Dropbox said the program gave qualified women additional work commitments and stretch goals instead of simply promoting them, as they believe male colleagues tended to be.

“The initiatives that I’ve been a part of feel like they’re asking [women] to take on more work in order to, say, find impact in their career, seek mentors, etc., rather than putting the responsibility on others, like the large number of white men in leadership,” Source 3 told VentureBeat.

Source 4 did not participate in LEAD but said that while they like that people are given resources to help them excel, such a program does not get to the root of why women at Dropbox aren’t getting raises and moving up in their careers in an equitable manner.

“I would like there to be less conversation about what the individual does and more about what the company can do, and I think that sort of discussion is lacking,” Source 5 said.

Source 5 was also skeptical about LEAD’s value, telling VentureBeat, “If you want to offer an empowerment program, it should be to somebody who needs help leveling up to get on that playing field. But these people [in LEAD] are showing that they do the same work as their white male colleagues, and you’re telling them they’re still missing something.”

“It’s avoiding the actual problem,” Source 5 continued. “They don’t need mentorship. They need sponsorship.”

Dropbox executives’ initial response to the allegations

According to internal documents obtained by VentureBeat, the report on gender discrimination was first shared with Dropbox executives on December 8, and with all Dropbox employees in North America on December 9. In the days following the release of that report, senior Dropbox employees responded in a number of ways.

In an email on December 9, Houston told Dropbox employees the company takes discrimination claims seriously but that since the quoted sources are anonymous, Dropbox needed to “follow up and learn more.” He then urged anyone with discrimination claims or the ability to substantiate anonymous claims in the report to come forward using third-party employee whistleblower service Convercent.

Source 3 told VentureBeat that Houston’s statements came off as an attempt to undermine the results of the report instead of taking steps to defend workers. Source 1 called Houston’s response tone-deaf and a missed opportunity to say something meaningful about the gender discrimination documented in that report.

“It was terrible. It was patronizing,” Source 2 told VentureBeat. “It just felt dismissive and almost intentional in its trying to discredit [the author of the report]. And it’s frustrating because that’s the lived experience of a lot of us at Drew’s company, and here he is saying this isn’t the way to solve your problems.”

In an interview with VentureBeat Thursday, Dropbox head of DEI Danny Guillory defended Houston’s response.

“My understanding was that the goal was to have more information to be able to act on it, to be able to investigate directly, because unless it’s actually brought to us as a claim, we’re not able to investigate,” Guillory said. “So, that’s my understanding. Drew, actually, I think, takes this really seriously.”

People VentureBeat spoke to for this story took issue with the company’s request that they share discrimination claims or concerns with Convercent. The report about the experience of women working at Dropbox does not mention Convercent, but current and former employees told VentureBeat they were skeptical that a service provided by their employer would lead to meaningful action or ensure them privacy.

“I don’t trust it,” Source 3 told VentureBeat. “I don’t trust HR. I believe that the lawyers, that the [whistleblowing service] would reject you or are here to protect business, and so is HR.”

The day after Houston emailed employees about the discrimination allegations in the report, Dropbox chief legal officer Bart Volkmer and chief people officer Melanie Collins shared the company’s next steps in a message to Dropbox’s internal #women channel in Slack.

Their message reiterated Dropbox’s stated commitment to making the company a “fair place to work” and asserted that claims made in the report were not reflected in attrition or promotion data or employee surveys.

They also outlined additional steps the company planned to take to address issues raised by the report, including hosting small coffee chats with the staff and beginning a quarterly review process for discrimination and harassment claims led by DEI, legal, and people teams with “staff-level visibility.” Dropbox also claimed it would convene focus groups led by an independent third party to gather insights from female employees, with a focus on L3 employees. Dropbox said information shared in such focus groups would be collected anonymously.

Dropbox’s DEI Town Hall

A day after the report alleging gender discrimination was sent to all Dropbox employees in North America, executives held an annual town hall meeting to share the latest company diversity statistics and address the report.

Houston talked about how the company has three full-time staff members dedicated to diversity recruiting at universities and conferences and how remote hiring could open new avenues for diverse hiring practices.

He applauded the work of the DEI team and praised employee resource groups for women and Black Dropbox employees. He also conceded that Dropbox “still has a lot of work to do on several fronts.”

Alluding to the report, Houston said the goal of this town hall was to “level set the knowledge to give people a full picture of what’s going on.”

“Because what tends to happen is, as I see pieces, if I’m not really involved in this work like we are, we don’t necessarily see the full gestalt. And so that’s what we’ll hope to give and share with you here,” he said.

Houston also said he was proud of the DEI pilot Project LEAD, despite criticism of the program in the report.

“So far, of the 42 people who started the program in April, 100% of them are actually still here at Dropbox, which to me is a good sign,” he said. According to the 2020 diversity report Dropbox published Thursday, just under half (48%) of the women who completed LEAD were promoted.

Guillory told VentureBeat in an interview Thursday that approximately 330 employees were eligible to participate in the program.

At the town hall, Dropbox also took the opportunity to share its latest annual diversity data. As part of the presentation, a DEI staff member said women currently represent 39.3% of employees, up 0.8% from 2019, and URM representation is 12.5%, up 0.3% from 2019.

According to data shared during the town hall, 21% of women at Dropbox received promotions versus 18% of men in 2020, while self-identified members of URM groups were promoted at a rate commensurate with non-URM employees.

The company also said that about 37% of Dropbox employees who rank L4 and above are women, up 1.5%, while 18.5% of tech roles ranked L4 or above belong to women, up 3.7% from 2019.

“It’s interesting because the premise of what was said [in the report alleging discrimination] was that the promotion rates are less, and the data is actually telling us that the promotion rates of women are actually higher,” Guillory said during the meeting. “So there seems to be a disconnect that, frankly, we’re kind of struggling with a little bit. And so I think we’re gonna have to do some qualitative research because the quantitative research doesn’t actually match up with what was stated there. And so that doesn’t mean that there’s not something we need to capture, it just means we’re going to have to find a different way to capture it.”

Dropbox Q&A

The report alleging gender discrimination at Dropbox was the primary topic of conversation in a question-and-answer session with Dropbox employees after remarks by Houston and DEI staff, which included a comparison to diversity data from other tech companies like Facebook, Google, Netflix, and Slack.

Collins said during the Q&A that the majority of promotions at Dropbox are for L2 and L3 employees and handled by M3 and M4 managers. Collins cited policy stating that managers are expected to “present a balanced and fact-based case” for promotions and said the company reviews promotion metrics based on race, gender, region, and specific company team.

“I think there’s a perception that there’s just a lot of subjectivity, right? If my individual manager doesn’t agree that I should be promoted then I’m being held back in some way,” Collins said.

Going forward, Collins and Guillory said, Dropbox employees will also be able to see all feedback from colleagues, rather than having that information submitted to a manager who summarizes feedback tied to promotions.

Dropbox’s response to VentureBeat’s request for comment

In an interview Thursday with VentureBeat, Guillory said Dropbox employee feedback did not reflect the discrimination detailed in the report alleging discrimination, though an employee survey shared during the town hall showed a slight decline in the number of employees who believe they have an equal opportunity to succeed.

When asked whether Dropbox doubts the validity of any of the report findings, Guillory said “I can’t speak to the experiences, ones that were never reported directly to us. We didn’t have an opportunity to investigate. Once the report did come out, we invited people to either report directly to the organization or to use our third party, our neutral third-party hotline to report, and unfortunately, we weren’t able to act on that.”

Update February 5, 5 p.m.: When VentureBeat requested promotion, leadership, and representation data for employees who are women of color, a Dropbox spokesperson declined, saying: “Everything we publicly disclose is available in our published diversity reports.”

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