'It's A Career Ender': 2 LGBTQ Former Dell Workers Share Their Stories

Jul 15, 2019
Originally published on July 15, 2019 3:36 pm

Helen Harris doesn't wear makeup or feminine jewelry. She mostly dresses in men's tailored suits and men's shoes. She's gender nonconforming and identifies as a woman. And, she says, that's nobody's business.

Which is why in late 2015, when she started taking hormones to become more masculine looking, she did it quietly.

Harris, 37, is a systems engineer who worked at Dell, selling technology to major companies and helping them set it up.

But she says she had a tough time moving up at the computer company and was assigned to a lengthy training period, while colleagues were promoted.

She says she got heckled by co-workers when she gave presentations. And, Harris says, one of her instructors kept telling her "people have to like you for you to be able to do this job. He kept saying stuff like that to me."

NPR spoke to four colleagues with whom Harris has worked. They described a talented young woman whose career was completely derailed a few years ago. And they, like Harris, suspect she had a tough time because of the way she looks.

Her struggle at Dell led Harris to file a complaint with New York City's Commission on Human Rights, alleging the company didn't want to put her in front of customers because of her appearance.

Dell says Harris' situation was resolved amicably. But there are at least two other cases against the company from LGBTQ workers alleging discrimination. Dell, which is an NPR sponsor, denied liability in one case. The other is ongoing.

After Harris' company merged with Dell, she and other employees were assigned to training. Harris says she was heckled by co-workers when she gave presentations. She says her colleagues who attended the training started moving up the corporate ladder, but Harris didn't.
Elias Williams for NPR

Harris says her problems happened around the same time her employer, EMC, was merging with Dell. In her complaint, Harris detailed how she kept being told she needed to keep on training. So she did — for three years.

During that time, she says, she'd speak with managers, executives, colleagues and human resources. "What is the problem? Like, if there is a problem with me, like [with] what I'm doing, can someone please speak up?" she says she asked them.

The rights of trans and gender-nonconforming people in the U.S. are starting to get more attention. Activists say limited job opportunities and lack of clear protection from workplace discrimination have helped marginalize transgender people and hurt them financially.

Over 200 companies — including Amazon, Google and Uber — have urged the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that federal civil rights law prohibits discrimination against gay and transgender workers.

The Justice Department has argued that it does not.

'Don't tell these people that you're transgender. It's a career ender.' - Cicilia Gilbert, on what she says a trans co-worker advised her

And there's this idea that the tech industry is a place where stuff like this doesn't happen: Scooter in to work and have piercings and tattoos? No problem. As long as you work hard, it doesn't matter who you are or what you look like.

The diversity numbers at big tech companies like Google, Facebook and Apple tell a different story. Take Facebook: Less than a quarter of tech roles there are held by women; African Americans make up only about 1%.

And when you look at Dell, you get a complicated picture.

Cicilia Gilbert, who was also a systems engineer at Dell, was let go in 2018, during the middle of her transition.
Maranie R. Staab for NPR

The company has repeatedly been ranked among the 50 best for diversity. But several current and former Dell employees, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, said the company's New York office has the reputation of being a "boys club."

Cicilia Gilbert, who was also a systems engineer at Dell, says it's especially bad in the tech sales division. Gilbert, 58, is suing Dell for, among other things, allegedly discriminating against her for her gender transition. The case is ongoing.

She told NPR that when she decided to transition from male to female, a trans co-worker advised her: "Don't tell these people that you're transgender. It's a career ender."

In her lawsuit, Gilbert said that in late 2018, right in the middle of her transition, she was let go. "They said, 'We're laying you off because your transgender transition is impeding your ability to travel,' " she told NPR.

It's not unusual for a company as large as Dell to face discrimination lawsuits. Jennifer Davis, a spokeswoman for Dell, told NPR that Gilbert's layoff had nothing to do with her gender — it was part of a restructuring in which hundreds lost their jobs.

Gilbert and her wife, Alexandra, stand in their yard in upstate New York. Gilbert is suing Dell for, among other things, allegedly discriminating against her for her gender transition. The case is ongoing.
Maranie R. Staab for NPR

And Davis pointed to the company's support network for trans employees. NPR spoke to two workers who say the extensive medical coverage and support Dell offers made their gender transition possible. They said they consider themselves very fortunate to work for a company that's so inclusive.

But in 2017, the Massachusetts attorney general investigated the case of a former intern who is trans and who had complained about discrimination. Dell denied wrongdoing but paid a $110,000 settlement.

Harris says she always saw the tech industry as a place where, no matter what you look like, "if you put your head down and you learn the stuff and you do the work, you can change your circumstances."

Earlier this summer, Harris told NPR she was still on Dell's payroll, but she wasn't going into the office on a regular basis anymore.

In her complaint to New York City's Commission on Human Rights, she detailed her problems using Dell's bathrooms. "That's the truth," she told NPR. She added that after being harassed a second time about which restroom she was using, she decided to stop going to work.

Harris said she was exhausted.

A few weeks later, she left the company.

Harris quit working at Dell but plans on staying in a career in tech.
Elias Williams for NPR

Davis, Dell's spokeswoman, wouldn't provide details about Harris' time at the company, saying she wishes to respect Harris' privacy. But Davis said, "The matter was resolved amicably."

Despite her experience at Dell, Harris said she wants to keep working in the tech industry.

"I want my money. I don't want to be poor," she said. "My father, he picked cotton. My grandfather was a sharecropper. I'm a systems engineer. So, I'd rather stay."

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

In this country, there's a growing fight for the rights of transgender people. Over 200 companies, including tech giants like Amazon and Google, have urged the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that federal civil rights law prohibit discrimination against gay and transgender workers. Now, recently, NPR learned of one woman's experience at the computer company Dell. She says she endured discrimination for years and filed a complaint with New York City's Commission on Human Rights. There are two other cases alleging discrimination at Dell. Dell denies liability in one case, and the other's ongoing. And Dell, we should note, is an NPR sponsor.

Here's NPR's Jasmine Garsd.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Sometimes when she's frustrated, when she has some free time, Helen Harris comes here to blow off steam - a little warehouse Gym in Brooklyn. And these days Harris has too much free time and plenty of frustration, which led her to file a complaint.

HELEN HARRIS: I know that my rights have been violated.

GARSD: Harris is a 37-year-old systems engineer. Her job - selling technology to major companies and helping them set it up. NPR spoke to four colleagues Harris has worked with. They describe a talented young woman whose career was completely derailed a few years ago. And they, like Harris, suspect it's because of the way she looks.

Harris is African American and gender-nonconforming. She was born and identifies as a woman. She uses feminine pronouns. She doesn't wear makeup or jewelry. She favors men's tailored suits and shoes and says, ultimately, that's nobody's business, which is why, in late 2015, when she started taking hormones to become more masculine-looking, she did it quietly. Besides, she always saw the tech industry as this place where, no matter what you look like...

HARRIS: If you put your head down and you learn the stuff and you do the work, you can change your circumstances.

GARSD: This was around the same time when Harris' company, EMC, was merging with Dell. Harris and several other employees were sent to training to step into new roles. She says that's when things started getting weird. She says she got heckled by co-workers when she gave presentations and that one of her instructors kept telling her, in order to work with customers...

HARRIS: People have to like you for you to be able to do this job - he kept saying stuff like that to me.

GARSD: Harris says her colleagues, the ones who were at that training where she had a hard time, they all moved up the ladder. She was told to keep on training. So she did - for three years. In her complaint to New York's Commission on Human Rights, Harris alleges that Dell didn't want to put her in front of customers because of how she looked. During that time, she says that she'd speak with managers, executives, colleagues, HR.

HARRIS: What is the problem? Like, if there is a problem with me, like, what I'm doing, can someone please speak up?

GARSD: So there's this idea that the tech industry is a place where stuff like this doesn't happen, where you can scooter into work, piercings, tattoos - no problem. As long as you work hard, it doesn't matter who you are. The diversity numbers at big tech companies like Google, Facebook and Apple tell a different story. Take Facebook - less than a quarter of tech roles there are held by women; African Americans make up only about 1%.

At Dell, you get a complicated picture. On the one hand, the company has repeatedly been ranked among the 50 best for diversity. But several current and former Dell employees, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, said the New York office had the atmosphere of a boys club. A woman named Cicilia Gilbert, also a systems engineer at Dell, says it's not just New York - the tech sales culture in general can be brutal; she says it was for her. When Gilbert decided to transition from male to female, she says a trans co-worker warned her.

CICILIA GILBERT: Don't tell these people that you're transgender; it's a career-ender.

GARSD: Gilbert was devastated when, in late 2018, right in the middle of her transition, she was let go.

GILBERT: They said, we're laying you off because your transgender transition is impeding your ability to travel.

GARSD: Gilbert, who is 58, is suing Dell for, among other things, allegedly discriminating against her for her gender transition. The case is ongoing. It's not unusual for a company as large as Dell to have discrimination lawsuits. Jennifer Davis, a spokeswoman for Dell, told NPR that Gilbert's layoff had nothing to do with her gender; it was part of a restructuring where hundreds lost their jobs. And she pointed to the company's support network for trans employees.

NPR spoke to two workers who say the extensive medical coverage and support Dell offers made their gender transition possible. But there was another case back in 2017 - the Massachusetts attorney general investigated a complaint from a former intern, also trans, who alleged discrimination. Dell denied wrongdoing but paid $110,000 in settlement. The last time I met with Harris at the gym in early June, she was still on Dell's payroll, but she wasn't even bothering with going into the office on a regular basis anymore.

HARRIS: I have problems using the bathroom - that's the truth. After the second time I got harassed about which restroom I was using is when I stopped going.

GARSD: Helen Harris says she's exhausted. A few weeks after we met, she quit. I asked Dell about her. Spokeswoman Jennifer Davis wouldn't provide details, saying she wishes to respect Harris' privacy. But she says the matter was resolved amicably. I asked Harris if she'd given up on a career in tech. She said, no way.

HARRIS: I want my money. I don't want to be poor. Like, my father, he picked cotton. My grandfather was a sharecropper. I'm a systems engineer, so I'd rather stay.

GARSD: She quit Dell, but she's not quitting tech.

Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.