Protocol | Workplace

How one woman helped build the #AppleToo movement at tech’s most secretive company

Against the odds, a collective worker movement has started to emerge at Apple. Here's how the de-facto face of the movement is dealing with the internal company hate, and why she feels it's worth it.

Person wearing a mask walks in front of Apple logo

Apple employees are sharing stories of workplace issues with a new collective movement calling itself #AppleToo.

Photo: Bloomberg via Getty

When Apple security engineer Cher Scarlett opened the anonymous worker forum Blind on Friday afternoon, she saw that one of the most popular posts accused her of ruining the company. When we chatted just a few minutes later, I asked her how she was doing and she could only respond with a long sigh.

Scarlett has become the de-facto face of the new #AppleToo movement, a group of workers who have gathered together to ask their peers and former Apple employees to share their stories of issues in the workplace, ranging from harassment and discrimination to bullying and feeling unheard by management. #AppleToo first shared its callout for stories just over a week ago, and the group has already received nearly 500 varying reports from people all across the company. The most common theme from the stories? Workers who feel as if they've been ignored by human resources.

"There's this culture within Apple that is very rewarding of secrecy and loyalty, and when I have read some of these posts about me, it's very much seeping through, people are feeling that I'm leaking confidential data." But Scarlett doesn't see it that way — she works in corporate security and legal, and she said that she would never leak product information (and that her direct team supports her, and condemns the abuse she's receiving). Talking publicly about issues within the workplace is, to her, an entirely different question.

While #AppleToo is not a union per se, the group's website says that it wants to use the power of a collective movement to bring attention to the hundreds of Apple workers who have long felt invalidated by the company. Scarlett, who had a well-known online presence in the software world even before she became an Apple worker, is the group organizer who has spoken the most publicly, and who publicly led the effort to create the informal pay equity survey against Apple's wishes.

Apple did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Tech workplace movements are not a new trend. In January, Google employees formed the Alphabet Workers Union, which, while unrecognized by the National Labor Relations Board, has already led several successful campaigns for changes in workplace policies. The AWU has aligned itself with the Communications Workers of America, a national union that also represents several smaller tech companies that have formally unionized in the last six months.

While the power dynamic has clearly started to shift from companies to workers in the tech industry more broadly over the last year (a July Protocol survey of the tech industry found that nearly half of respondents were interested in joining a union), that change was not immediately evident at Apple. Apple culture is notoriously secretive, and its workers have a long history of refusing to speak to the press or on social media about company products. In the past, some workers have come forward internally to express their anger, report issues or work together to make change — for example, one woman in 2016 wrote an email to CEO Tim Cook about jokes her coworkers were making about rape — but very little collective action has made its way into the public eye.

Yet, over the last few months, it has become apparent that not even Apple is exempt from the shifting dynamic, whether that's been caused by a generational change, the proliferation of workplace collaboration apps like Slack, a broader cultural zeitgeist or some combination of the three. Different groups of employees have repeatedly broken that long history of workplace silence, first petitioning successfully to have controversial hire Antonio García Martínez removed from the company, then asking (unsuccessfully) for a looser remote work policy, and then trying to participate in informal surveys to measure pay inequities. One engineering program manager, Ashley Gjøvik, was put on indefinite administrative leave after reporting both internally and to the public numerous instances of sexism and a hostile work environment.

These changes are not popular with the Apple workers who take pride in the company's secrecy. They see the petitions and reports, as well as the workers who lead them, as leakers ruining the company culture — and Scarlett is the most prominent face of them all.

"It's affecting me in a way that I did not imagine; I do feel very isolated," she said. "Outside of my team, I feel like there's a lot of people who just want me to leave, they want me to want to leave." But Scarlett sees her own feelings as small compared to the experience of the hundreds of Apple workers who have reached out to her over the last few months to share their stories of unresolved problems at work.

When workers first started messaging Scarlett to ask for help with personal workplace accommodations for remote work in June, she encouraged them to file their questions, reports and requests with human resources or other appropriate internal avenues. Months later, almost none of those people received the accommodations they requested, and many of them felt angry and disrespected with the way Apple handled the requests. It made Scarlett lose faith in the process.

"Now my trust in the system has been eroded because I sent people to the system, and it failed them," she said. So Scarlett decided to try to find other avenues to demand change in a more collective way. "I reached out to some other folks who had organized things in the past or are currently organizing [off of Apple software], and I ended up getting invited to this Discord that has been in existence for a few years, that anonymously verified workers without using personally identifying information." On that Discord, people shared their stories and talked about different ways to hold the company accountable to everyone who felt that they had been ignored. #AppleToo was eventually born from those conversations.

"Literally hundreds of people have come to me. I can't even keep track anymore of the number of people who've shared their stories with me. These are people's lives. They are human beings," she said. "What else do you do when hundreds of people you don't know are coming to you with all of these different issues?"

Some of the organizers are now inviting all current and former Apple workers to join a social Discord server intended to help build community (not for formal workplace complaints), and Scarlett is also advising people who have shared issues with #AppleToo to file complaints with relevant state and federal authorities, like the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, the National Labor Relations Board and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

"I feel like the company needs to be held accountable because they're not holding themselves accountable. People want to feel heard. And they don't feel heard by Apple. There are some people who have been there for decades who feel like Apple leadership used to listen to them, and make them feel like they were listened to, and they feel like that is gone," she said. "I just want to find a way to create a well-oiled machine that lets people feel confident that they have the press, the public, telling the world that what happened to you was abhorrent and unacceptable."

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly titled the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. This story was updated on Aug. 30, 2021.

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