Pride and prejudice: 6 Amazon scientists share their experiences
Scientists from glamazon, Amazon’s LGBTQIA+ affinity group, say this year's Pride Month is as much about solidarity as it is about celebration.
In most cities around the world June is considered Pride Month, where people celebrate diversity and inclusion. It usually culminates in a parade or march to promote the self-affirmation, equality, and visibility of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, and asexual or allied (LGBTQIA+) community.
At Amazon, it's no different. There's a community of more than 7,000 employees from across the globe who are part of glamazon, an affinity group and employee network, whose mission is to connect those interested in LGBTQIA+ issues to company resources and to each other and to showcase Amazon’s acceptance in communities worldwide.
Given current events, particularly global protests resulting from the videotaped killing of George Floyd by law enforcement officials and the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding LGBTQIA+ equality, we asked some of the scientists within this affinity group about the significance of this year’s Pride Month.
Abhinav Aggarwal, applied scientist, Alexa Trust
Abhinav Aggarwal (pronouns: he/him/they/them) joined Amazon about nine months ago, after obtaining his PhD in computer science from the University of New Mexico in 2019. His work focuses on building customer trust by designing privacy-preserving machine learning algorithms for handling customer data.
“Since I joined Amazon, I’ve only had a very passive interaction with glamazon through emails. But I feel like the variety of topics discussed there is absolutely amazing. It’s not just LGBTQIA+ issues; there are thoughts about body positivity, gender pronouns, having pronouns on badges, and issues around diversity and inclusion,” he said.
“But I’d like to see more gender-neutral restrooms in the buildings and use of the ‘they’ pronoun by default,” he says. “Whenever I refer to someone I don’t personally know or even know of at all, I default to using ‘they/them’ as a pronoun. It would be nice to see this as common practice and not assuming someone’s gender based on familiarity with the name, which aligns with the removal of unconscious bias and helps with acceptance.”
With privacy and fairness in AI becoming an increasingly important topic, Aggarwal sees similar issues within his field.
“You don’t want your models for services like Alexa to give you results that are gender-biased, especially as we move towards a more gender-neutral world,” Aggarwal explains. “Ideally, our models should produce gender-agnostic results, and we must work backwards from this goal when defining gender-based fairness. That’s something I’ve felt a lot of pushback with within the industry, because the problem becomes far more complex if you talk about gender neutrality and the continuous spectrum of gender, instead of just the binary male or female.”
Aggarwal sees celebrating Pride Month as a step towards this awareness.
“I think these movements are absolutely necessary because they call out basic human rights against discrimination. They call out a very fundamental way of how we think we should be treated. LGBTQIA+ is a tag to help identify and understand ourselves better. It doesn’t change who we are as a person. It doesn’t change how technically advanced or skilled we are. It doesn’t change how we are going to perform at Amazon,” Aggarwal emphasizes.
“If the person is a good human being at heart, helps society and contributes to the general well-being of the nation, that’s what’s more important, independent of whether they are gay, lesbian, Black, white or associate themselves in any other way. Acknowledgement of this label-agnostic human existence is much more than man-made tags.”
Sheeraz Ahmad, applied scientist, Amazon SageMaker Ground Truth
Sheeraz Ahmad (pronouns: he/him) joined Amazon more than four years ago as a research scientist. Today, he works as an applied scientist on Amazon SageMaker Ground Truth team, an AWS data-labeling service that makes it easy to build highly accurate training data sets for machine learning.
Prior to Amazon, he received his PhD in computer science from the University of California San Diego (UCSD), where he focused on computational modeling of human and animal behavior in different domains, with the goals of gaining insights into the inner workings of the brain and developing behaviorally inspired machine learning models.
Ahmad, who grew up in Kanpur, India, previously earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur.
In Kanpur, Ahmad's experience was that being on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum was not well accepted, and he didn’t have many role models to follow. That changed after college when he moved to a larger city, Bangalore, and especially when he attended UCSD, where “I came across people who were out and proud and doing amazing things in life.”
Now, as an active member of Amazon’s glamazon affinity group, Ahmad is a role model himself. When he first joined Amazon, he appreciated glamazon’s support and attended events but found socializing difficult in some of the larger events. So for more than four years now, he’s organized monthly game nights, where a smaller group of glamazon members in Seattle get together to socialize and play board games. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic the tradition has continued, though online.
Pride Month is especially meaningful to Ahmad, but this year “the tone is more somber, understandably so.”
“There’s a lot going on, and as much as there is to celebrate, there’s so much more to be done. This month, as a gay man, my focus is more on being an ally for people who are going through their own struggles,” he says. “Gay men have faced discrimination and hardship, and we need to lean into those experiences, remember all the pain we’ve gone through, and be there for the womxn and our African-American brothers and sisters.
“I’m sharing with my friends, who tend to be somewhat conservative, how I have felt, based on my own experiences, and trying to relate how all members of the LGBTQIA+ community are feeling now, especially those who are African American. It’s important to be there for them, to be an ally, providing solidarity.”
“This year," Ahmad says, “feels less about celebration and more about solidarity.”
Liz Dugan, user experience researcher, Amazon Alexa
Liz Dugan (pronouns: she/her) joined Amazon earlier this year and during her onboarding experience learned about the glamazon affinity group. The voice user interface researcher, who earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in cognitive psychology from the University of Oklahoma, self-identifies as a queer, bisexual woman. She immediately felt welcomed by glamazon members.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve noted more and more people joining the group, and everyone is treated the same. People reach out and say, ‘How can we help you? Is there anything we can provide you? Please let us know if there’s anything you need.’ So you immediately feel as though this is a safe place.”
On this day, despite recent events, Dugan is more upbeat, as the Supreme Court has just ruled that a landmark civil-rights law protects gay and transgender workers from workplace discrimination. “An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law,” Justice Neil M. Gorsuch wrote for the majority in the court’s 6-to-3 ruling.
“So the LGBTQIA+ community just had a very historic win today. We wouldn’t be experiencing the moment we are today without Stonewall,” she says, referring to the 1969 New York City Stonewall riots that are considered one of the most important events leading to today’s fight for LGBTQIA+ rights.
“Everything we have today started with Stonewall, which was a riot started by trans people of color. So today we can live publicly and authentically and mostly safe from verbal abuse because of Black trans activists. Yet today we are still seeing those same populations being actively targeted and murdered without any real recourse or much publicity. Just within the past few days two Black trans women were murdered, and I’ve seen no one talk about it.”
We applaud SCOTUS’s decision to protect LGBTQ employees from discrimination. This is a historic win in our nation’s long struggle to ensure fairness & equal treatment for all. As the fight for full equality continues, we stand proudly with our public & private sector allies. pic.twitter.com/8ktJcZlzLE— Amazon News (@amazonnews) June 15, 2020
“Some of the freedoms we enjoy today are because of Black trans women, and yet we continue to fail them as a privileged group of gay mostly white individuals, and we’re not doing enough to support the Black Lives Matter movement now. …We need to return to our roots and lift up our brothers and sisters who are suffering. They started the movement for us, and we need to be there for them now.”
Like other colleagues, Dugan feels like this year’s Pride Month is less a time to celebrate and more a time to continue pushing for progress.
“It’s a moment to return to our community’s roots. We still have problems,” she says. “We still have youth who don’t have homes and are struggling; we still have people who are discriminated against; we still have people who are being brutalized and murdered. So while we can be proud of what we’ve accomplished, we still have work to do. We have to carry our pride but still get our hands dirty. Stonewall wasn’t a celebration. Stonewall was a riot. So we have to keep fighting.”
Ruiwei Jiang, research scientist, Alexa Domains - HHO
Before joining Amazon as a research scientist, Ruiwei Jiang (pronouns: she/her) studied computational genetics in college, working in particular on human DNA. Her studies explored the adverse impact of pollution on human genetic encoding, comparing the short- and long-term effects of living in a polluted versus non-polluted environment.
“It might not sound super relevant to Alexa, but you're doing computation decks, working with a lot of data, writing code and doing a lot the analysis and building out of models, so that sort of became transferable knowledge,” she says.
Her role within the Alexa Household Organization, whose mission is to help Alexa help families stay organized and connected with one another, is to maintain the natural-language-understanding framework for features such as reminders, calendar tasks, weather, and recipes, as well as for creating models to improve customer retention.
“The world is moving towards conversational AI,” she says, “and it’s cool to be able to say you’re working in this field and developing models that are actually being used by customers, who are directly benefiting from it.”
Jiang is based in Amazon’s Vancouver office, where she’s experienced many positive actions from the glamazon affinity group, which have warmed her heart.
“They organize meetings in the office on a Sunday afternoon or Saturday morning, before the Pride parade, and hand out stickers. It’s a small thing, but it all adds up. Previous companies I’ve worked at have never really stood up as a corporation and been like ‘hey, we’re going to do something together for the Pride parade’. But at Amazon, it’s like ‘hey, let’s get together and show our support and be part of the community’, which is really inspiring.”
As a self-proclaimed ally, she can relate to the LGBTQIA+ community. “Growing up in Canada as a Chinese Canadian, I know how it feels to be to be left out and stigmatized and not feel like you're part of the group, or welcome. So I can imagine how other groups of people feel, even if I don’t have full visibility into all the problems and discrimination that they face. I think it’s important to stand up for what I think is right and not just have those values and keep it to myself.”
In light of recent events, she’s been impressed by the top-down communication at Amazon, from vice president to director level, with each leader taking the time to listen to employees and expressing their views that what’s happening to Black people in the U.S. isn’t right.
“We need to make the workplace more human than it is right now. We spend eight hours a day here, and we make friends. It’s also about keeping that diversity in hiring, which I think is one of the best ways to break down barriers, by having cross-community, cross-culture, cross-gender friendships and communications.”
Mentoring is another way Jiang promotes diversity and inclusion. “I’m what they call ‘women in tech’, and I’ve been in my career for about six years, so I think it’s important to mentor other women and girls, so they don’t feel left out or scared.”
Luyolo Magangane, applied scientist, Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2)
Located in South Africa, Luyolo Magangane (pronouns: he/him) joined Amazon just over a year ago, after a friend referred him for a machine learning role.
“I’m in the placement team, and we try to help customers have the best experience possible whenever they use AWS. So if a customer launches an EC2 instance, my team is in charge of the decision-making algorithm that chooses where to place that instance,” he explains.
Prior to Amazon, he studied electrical and computer engineering at the University of Cape Town and obtained a master’s degree in artificial intelligence at Stellenbosch University. He had a few jobs within the industry before joining Amazon.
He’s a member of Amazon’s glamazon affinity group, where he identifies as an ally and believes it’s important that others do too.
“Everyone should believe in the respect of the humanity of people first. When you meet someone, you have no context of their background or how they grew up. The only thing you know is that you are human, and they're also human. Your sexual orientation, gender identity, or racial identity doesn’t matter. It becomes much harder to be bigoted and to oppress someone if everyone starts from that perspective,” he says.
Magangane believes his support for the LGBTQIA+ community stems from his childhood, during which South Africa saw the end of apartheid, a system of institutionalized racial segregation from 1948 until the early 1990s.
“That was when [Nelson] Mandela was released from prison. That was when you could see the tides of change coming, from minority rule to democracy, which was incredible,” he explains.
“Every day I was encouraged to dream. And so, the benefit of being born in an environment like that led to me being born very free of prejudice. But because, historically, I come from a somewhat conservative background, I have a lot of friends and family who I care about who aren't as open minded as I think they could be.”
When he thinks about Pride and the Black Lives Matter movement and what society can learn from these events, he quotes Killer Mike, an American rapper, songwriter, actor, and activist: “It’s to ‘strategize, organize, and mobilize’, peaceful protests. It’s always done through people organizing, coming out, being peaceful, and saying that we believe what's happened is wrong and things need to change,” he says.
“I think part of that is not tolerating bigotry, which is one of the challenges you have to deal with in the Black community. You’re taught to pick and choose your battles, but you end up tolerating all those things that you don't battle, which only encourages it. You have to look bigotry in the eye and demand change. You cannot tolerate any of that. Even if institutions have to change, we’re demanding the change now.”
Shane McGarry, data scientist, Amazon Fashion
Shane McGarry (pronouns: they/them) joined Amazon earlier this year as a data scientist, focused on improving the company’s fashion catalogue using machine learning and other techniques “to create a stellar experience for our customers.”
McGarry, who identifies as non-binary, meaning they (McGarry prefers the pronouns they/them to he/she, thus the use of their, they, and them in this section) don’t exclusively identify as a man or a woman, recently earned their PhD in computer science from Maynooth University, about 25 minutes outside Dublin, Ireland, where their thesis work focused on improving the search experience within digital research environments (historical records, etc.) through visual search techniques.
Before joining Amazon, McGarry held several software development roles, where they encountered challenges.
“I’m non-binary, and I’m not traditionally masculine in any way shape or form, from my speech patterns to the way I carry myself,” McGarry explains. “What I found is that I was often ignored in ways that my colleagues with the same level of experience weren’t. When working with clients, if I dealt with them over email, they were receptive to my ideas, but when we started talking over the phone and they would hear my voice, suddenly they would become skeptical of what I was saying.”
McGarry says they encountered similar challenges with management.
“There were a lot of times when my opinion was brushed to the side, despite being proven consistently right. I would say ‘I see a problem; I think we should do this differently.’ They would ignore me, and no matter how many times I was proven right, I was never taken seriously.”
After joining Amazon, McGarry became involved in glamazon, one of 12 affinity groups within the company aimed at bringing employees together across businesses and locations around the globe. They’ve been impressed with glamazon and with their organization’s response to recent events related to the killing of George Floyd and how it’s recognizing Pride Month.
“The management within Amazon Fashion has really impressed me, especially within the past few weeks with everything that’s been occurring. …The president of our business had an all-hands meeting where she invited a global diversity and inclusion leader who has dealt with racial trauma. She talked to us about racial trauma, what it is, and how it affects people.”
Asked about lessons we can derive from recent current events, McGarry says, “In terms of the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s really important for us as individuals, as well as the company as a whole, to examine our racial biases that result from growing up in a culture that favors white people. Having a racial bias doesn’t make you a bad person. But refusing to acknowledge it, to examine it, and to work towards unlearning it, that’s where the problem lies.”
McGarry, who grew up in northeast Ohio within a deeply religious family, understands firsthand the challenges of dealing with bias and prejudice. For McGarry, Pride Month represents an opportunity to celebrate who they are without fear.
“As someone who grew up in the eighties and nineties in a deeply religious home where being gay wasn’t acceptable, and hearing messages from the community and church that gay people are evil, that God hates them, you get inundated with all of these negative messages, and you really begin to hate yourself, who you are, and you live in constant fear. So for me, Pride Month is about letting a lot of that go and celebrating yourself for who you are and really embracing it. At the same time, we have to remember our history, how far we’ve come, but yet how far we still need to go.”