July 26, 2023
This year, Ivana Penc, a Berlin-based tech worker, experienced what more and more people in the tech industry have recently fallen victim to.
Self-identifying herself on LinkedIn as a “feminist with a strong passion for business, math and data,” the environment and expectations that she met with at GetYourGuide presented as a challenge from the offset.
As Penc mentions on her Substack post, the job started remotely, with gender-politics-tinged red flags bearing face as Penc was not provided with a Slack handle that would prevent her, the Data Science Manager, and the new Associate Data Science Manager from being mistaken for one another.
Things escalated soon as Penc found herself expected to work overtime at nights and weekends. For her dedication she received neither reward nor praise. In addition to functioning in her role as team leader, Penc also performed the additional role of a product manager on a daily basis. As the situation progressed, Penc found that her needs were not being met, requests were being ignored and eventually, after needing to take a week of sick leave to recover psychologically prior to meeting friends and family at Christmas, Penc decided that she would resign.
Despite having prescribed to not return to the workplace for the rest of her notice period after a psychiatric assessment, Penc wished to say her goodbyes.
In a 1:1 with her manager she shared her intentions and was met with little reaction. Later, she shared her intended farewell speech, in which she explicitly identified as a feminist. This word was perceived as inflammatory and slandering, and then led to Penc being effectively bullied out of GetYourGuide. GetYourGuide claimed that statements of her considering resignation constituted as a verbal resignation. Despite asserting she had not, they held face. The meeting took place on January 23rd and Penc received her letter of termination, sans reason, just ten days later.
The following is an interview Yourequal had with Ivana Penc, providing more insight into her side of this story.
Maedbh: As I have read about it on your Substack, Berlin Boss Babes and LinkedIn, I won’t ask what happened to you at GetYourGuide. But I’ll ask, how has the reaction to your story been? Has the support outweighed any negative responses you may have received?
Ivana: The amount of support and encouragement received was surprising to me. Prior to posting, I was mentally preparing myself for negative backlash as I had those experiences with some of my colleagues before I went public. One Alex told me I was creating public drama, and another Alex told me I was exaggerating and to stop contacting him. If these were the responses from people who actually got to know me and work with me, what could I expect from the world? And when would I be justified in creating public drama if not when I had been blatantly censored and fired without cause?
M: Do you fear reporting these incidents might hinder your future employment opportunities? Or have you found a way to reframe this narrative for yourself?
I: I’m absolutely certain it will hinder them. Nobody wants a troublemaker, especially not with political connotations. And as I learned the hard way the past few months and heard many similar stories, HR tends to interpret a lot of topics as political. For example, asking for equal pay for equal work, which is also a story that got someone fired. Mind you, it’s illegal to not provide this in theory. In reality, people get fired when pointing out discrepancies.
On the other hand, I’m just so tired of working for companies who don’t share any of my values. I believe this ordeal will be a good automatic filter for future employers. I have acquired enough soft and hard skills in the industry that I’m sure I will land on my feet.
M: What would your advice be for women or people of marginalised genders who are in the same position as you and are afraid to speak out?
I: I don’t know if I can advise anyone on anything as each one of us have different circumstances to juggle with. I’ve written about this somewhere else, but I am at a point of privilege in my life. I have no dependents and a solid nest-egg in terms of savings. I’m fluent in German, am not tied to a work visa and I have a decade of experience in the industry. If I don’t speak up, who will? I completely understand that not everyone can follow this path, but I would try to appeal to people with similar circumstances and at least some power to speak up on behalf of their colleagues who can’t afford to do so themselves.
M: In exposing GetYourGuide, what conclusion do you hope to achieve? Personally, in terms of your career, but also the German work culture?
I: Personally I hope it will serve me as a reminder to finally emancipate myself from the Berlin startup scene and finally start something on my own. About the second question, I’m not sure I would call the work culture German, I believe it’s more a Silicon Valley one. And my hope is that my story encourages people to start fighting back. Especially in recent months we’ve seen how cruel some organisations can be and how little respect they have for morals or laws of the country. And sadly it’s working. When GYG fired ~18 more people the same month as me, only me and one other guy sued. The rest either didn’t know they could or were terrified to do so. As long as we are allowing the companies to get away with their unlawful practices, they have little incentive for change. And it’s past time for change to happen.
M: On your LinkedIn, you recently highlighted the EU Whistleblower law. Are there other worker protections you would advocate that folks further familiarise themselves with?
I: For individual protection, I would advise joining a union (verdi and IG Metall being the biggest ones) or getting yourself a legal protection insurance. But a much better tool would be starting a works council if your company doesn’t have one already. About 6 weeks ago there was an article about Google and Amazon struggling to lay off people in Germany due to the German entities having work councils and offering a 12 months severance for people leaving voluntarily. It’s important to educate oneself on these topics. Berlin Tech Workers Coalition is offering support and consultation on how to start a works council in your company and have successfully supported employees in starting one over the past 3 years. Most recently Hello Fresh elected one. It’s good to see tech workers finally organising and advocating for themselves.
M: Why do you believe the treatment you experienced is, as you mentioned in this post, so frequently occurring among tech startups?
I: It’s a systemic failure. There is a lack of accountability and protection from abusive behaviours. HR believes it’s easier to sweep issues under the rug and fire the people complaining, which teaches abusive managers that they can get away with whatever they please. It certainly doesn’t help that power in general attracts a certain type of personality.
M: Why do you think the word feminist triggered your supervisor to such an extent?
I: Because they believed I was implying they were sexist. Which I didn’t even think back when I said it. But the more they escalated things, the more problematic their behaviour became. I had a colleague claim afterwards he and his colleagues were not sexist as a response to me posting about gender issues, biases and discrimination. The same man who wrote “mild social anxiety” as a negative bullet point in a female direct reports’ official performance review document. Not to mention all of his colleagues in Berlin, besides me, were men. I would never have the audacity to tell a black or brown colleague that myself and a group of white colleagues are not racist, that is for them to decide.
M: Do you believe this treatment was, in addition to being gender-based, also influenced by your identity as a minority?
I: I do not wish to speculate on these topics. It would be better for the perpetrators to re-examine with themselves what unconscious biases might have influenced their behaviour. And I encouraged them to do so multiple times.
I can speak of hard observations, and those are telling me that in my decade in the industry, most of the managers, especially senior managers and C-levels I’ve seen have been Western men. In the meantime their websites are bragging with incredible women and 75+ nationalities. What they don’t tell you is that those nationalities can only be found in the call centres and in junior positions.
M: Reading the story on your Substack, it seems like you were greatly gaslighted in this position by your manager and convinced you were doing a "normal" amount of work. What is your perspective concerning the prevalence of gaslighting as a method of disregard and manipulation in toxic workplaces?
I: It’s unsettling to see it being such a common occurrence. I’ve spoken to a couple of dozen people having faced some bullying or abuse over the course of the last 4 months and gaslighting was the red thread in all these stories. While it’s clear that it does happen, what I don’t understand is why. A part of it might stem from trying to control the person in question and a part of it might be inability to admit to any wrongdoings. Personally I don’t understand their psychology so everything I said here are just wild guesses.