Opinion: Why a log of redacted Signal messages shines a light on Amazon’s glass ceiling

The exterior of The Spheres is seen at the Amazon.com Inc headquarters. An oft-heard refrain details a version of the same reality from women who’ve left the company: They can build long, lucrative careers at Amazon but, for many, their ceiling ends up being lower than their male counterparts. This is not an uncommon realisation among women in the tech industry. — Getty Images/The New York Times

When our Fortune 500 issue dropped earlier this month, I was thrilled to read many inspiring tales of business success and innovation chronicled by my colleagues. But another fact also caught my attention – just 52 or 10.4%, of the 500 largest US companies by revenue are run by women.

While that’s eight more companies than two years earlier in 2022, it’s exactly the same as the 52 women-led Fortune 500 companies on last year’s 2023 list. A couple of steps forward, and then one year standing in place.

Almost immediately, I thought of the company I’ve reported on the closest over the last decade: Amazon. Since I began covering the tech giant in 2013, I’ve heard a version of the same reality from women who’ve left the company: They can build long, lucrative careers at Amazon but, for many, their ceiling ends up being lower than their male counterparts. This is not an uncommon realisation among women in the tech industry.

When I first wrote on this topic back in 2017, one needed to look no further than the composition of Amazon’s senior leadership team – known as the S-team – to understand this reality. At the time, Amazon had 19 S-team members including then-CEO Jeff Bezos, and 18 were men. The one exception was Beth Galetti, the SVP of human resources or, in Amazon speak, the People Experience Technology division, or PXT.

Two years later, in 2019, Amazon’s S-team had grown to 22 people, with three female executives. That’s about 14%.

Today, the S-team has expanded to 30 executives, comprised of 25 men and five women. For those counting at home, female representation inside this exclusive group stands at a little less than 17%.

The reality is a bit more nuanced than that though. While it is true that S-team members lead Amazon’s largest business lines, Galetti is the only one among the five female executives to report to CEO Andy Jassy himself – alongside 14 men. That stat speaks for itself.

At the two executive levels below the S-team, composed mainly of roles with titles of vice president (Level 10) and director (Level 8), there are some signs of improvement on the gender representation front, according to Amazon’s recent workforce disclosure. In 2023, 26.7% of executives at Level 8 or above were women. That’s up from 25.2% in 2022 and 24.1% in 2021.

But earlier this month, I was reminded of Amazon’s male-dominated leadership beyond the numbers. As part of the FTC’s antitrust lawsuit against the tech giant, a log of Signal messages between Amazon leaders was made public. While the exact content of the Signal messages is not disclosed in the log, the dates and high-level descriptions of the messages are, as well as the names of the chat participants.

One of those message threads began in the last week of March 2021. At the time, tensions were high inside Amazon’s executive ranks as Amazon warehouse employees in Bessemer, Ala., were gearing up for one of the only union elections in the company’s history (Amazon is notoriously anti-union). The union supporters found vocal support from both Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the latter of whom spoke at a rally for the union organizers on March 26.

That same day, a Signal chat between eight Amazon leaders – all men – began. The chat participants included outgoing Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, incoming Amazon CEO Andy Jassy, then-Amazon consumer CEO Dave Clark, Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky, as well as four Amazon communications executives, led by former comms chief Jay Carney and current communications boss Drew Herdener.

The Amazon log document describes the thread simply as “relating to public relations issues” (though the union battle appears to have been the most significant public relations issue facing the company at the time the thread began). What appears to be clear is that when Amazon leadership was grappling with a PR issue significant enough to involve the incoming and outgoing CEOs, the broader group of people invited to the virtual table was exclusively male.

While HR chief Galetti and Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke make appearances elsewhere in the Signal log, the eight-man thread says a lot about where most of the real power in the company lies.

In an emailed statement, Amazon spokesperson Zoe Hoffmann said the company is “committed to increasing representation throughout our workforce through the hiring, retention and development of women across the company at all levels.” She added that the company has created leadership and development efforts to further those efforts.

As for the log of Signal messages, Hoffmann argued that it’s misleading and inaccurate to suggest that messages on a single platform are indicative of the way Amazon leaders make decisions. She also echoed Bezos’s own FTC deposition in which he said he didn’t use Signal to discuss “complicated business issues” or business matters “of any substance.”

At the same time, Amazon has been the subject of multiple gender discrimination lawsuits over the last few years. The company has denied the accusations and fought them in court.

While gender equality inside Amazon’s corporate offices has been improving, however slowly, it’s not far-fetched to imagine that the results of those outstanding lawsuits could lead to further change. – Fortune.com/The New York Times

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