California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) sues gaming company for discrimination, harassment

The video game industry has long had a reputation for being sexist and misogynistic. Now the Irvine-based company Activision Blizzard is facing a lawsuit by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) for discrimination and harassment.

The lawsuit filed last month against the publisher of video games including Call of Duty and World of Warcraft claims that the company has discriminated against its female employees in “compensation, assignment, promotion, termination, constructive discharge and retaliation.” Women make up approximately one-fifth of its workforce. Women of color have reported suffering even worse discrimination than their white colleagues.

The lawsuit follows a two-year state investigation

The company has, according to the suit, allowed a “frat bro” culture with rampant sexual harassment. Among the things the DFEH uncovered in its two-year investigation:

  • Female employees complained of regularly being groped and hit on by male supervisors.
  • Male employees engaged in “cube crawls.” These involved drinking “copious amounts” of alcohol and then crawling through cubicles harassing female employees.
  • One female employee took her own life after being subjected to sexual harassment on a company trip.
  • Women who complained about discrimination and/or harassment suffered retaliation including transfers, exclusion from projects and lay-offs.
  • Aside from the company itself, the lawsuit names two people, including the president. The other named defendant, a creative director, was fired last year.

The company, in response, claims that the lawsuit is based on “distorted, and in many cases false, descriptions of Blizzard’s past.”

Hundreds of employees staged a walk-out

Many employees disagree that the problems are in the past. Hundreds participated in a walkout late last month after news of the lawsuit and what they called an “abhorrent and insulting” response by Fran Townsend, a female executive of the company who once served as Homeland Security Advisor to President George W. Bush. They demanded more pay transparency, participation in hiring and firing practices, a third-party HR auditor and more.

It remains to be seen whether this lawsuit against a leader in the gaming industry (with a net revenue of more than $2 billion in just the first quarter of this year and some 435 million active users around the world) impacts other companies. It could lead employees at competitors with similar “frat bro” cultures to take action or possibly incentivize those company’s leaders to change that culture and ensure that all employees are treated fairly and respectfully.

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