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Elon Musk’s ‘Mass Termination’ of Twitter Employees Violated Anti-Discrimination Law, Targeted Women: Lawsuit

Elon Musk appears in a white bow tie

Elon Musk arrives for the 2022 Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 2, 2022, in New York. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue)

Layoffs at Twitter in the wake of Elon Musk’s takeover of the tech company disproportionately — and illegally — targeted women, according to a new class-action lawsuit.

In a complaint filed Wednesday by Carolina Bernal Strifling and Willow Wren Turkal, the former employees say that women were deliberately targeted for firing after Musk took the helm in October, and are asking a court to stop Twitter from conditioning any potential severance offer on signing a nondisclosure agreement or releases.

“The mass termination of employees at Twitter has impacted female employees to a much greater extent than male employees – and to a highly statistically significant degree,” the complaint says. “Moreover, Elon Musk has made a number of publicly discriminatory remarks about women, further confirming that the mass termination’s greater impact on female employees resulted from discrimination. Musk also quickly implemented new policies at Twitter that would have a disparate impact on women, thus forcing more women to leave the company.”

“Twitter has stated that it will be sending severance agreements to certain terminated or constructively discharged employees shortly,” the complaint continues. “Plaintiffs are very concerned that employees will be asked to sign away their rights without notice that they have legal claims of discrimination and that these legal claims have already been filed on their behalf.”

The complaint notes that Musk has been “widely criticized for sexist, demeaning, and hostile comments he has made against women, showing his discriminatory animus[.]”

“For example, Musk posted tweets on Twitter in which he joked about naming a school using the acronym ‘TITS’ and making other jokes about women’s breasts,” the lawsuit says, citing a December 2021 story in PCMag. “It will have epic merch,” Elon subsequently tweeted, according to the story.

“Just this week, Musk tweeted: ‘Testosterone rocks ngl,'” the complaint also says, referring to Musk’s use of shorthand for “not gonna lie.”

“Shortly before acquiring Twitter, Musk, who has been vocal about promoting women having a lot of babies (presumably disseminating the message that is more important than keeping their jobs), tweeted: ‘Being a Mom is just as important as any career,'” the complaint also says. “Thus, not surprisingly, women were significantly affected more than men in Twitter’s mass layoff under Musk.”

The complaint notes that “widely circulated pictures of Twitter employees before and after the layoff raised observations about the stark contrast in the number of women who appeared to be employed at the company before and after Musk’s acquisition.” A tweet featuring those pictures went viral on Twitter, although a fact check by Twitter itself suggests that the pictures lack context.

The lawsuit says that 57% of female employees were laid off on November 4, 2022, while 47% of male employees were laid off. A closer look at these numbers, the complaint says, shows that this disparity is no accident.

“[S]tatistical analysis reveals that this distribution in layoffs by sex is 7.3491 standard deviations away from a normal distribution,” the complaint says, citing analysis by Dr. Mark Killingsworth, an economics expert and professor at Rutgers University. “In other words, the odds that this disparity between women and men being laid off is due only to chance is .00000000000001 (or, put another way, 9.977 out of 100 trillion).”

The lawsuit says the disparity cannot be explained as a desire by Musk to keep more employees in engineering-related roles, as 63% of females in engineering-related roles were laid off, while 48% of male employees in engineering-related were laid off.

Again, analysis by Killingsworth says the “odds that this disparity between women and men in engineering related roles being laid off is due only to chance is .00000000000001 (or, put another way, 1.103 out of 100 trillion),” according to the complaint.

The plaintiffs are seeking a declaratory judgment that Twitter violated federal anti-discrimination law, as well as an injunction barring Twitter from seeking from former employees any releases of claims without first informing them about the lawsuit and providing contact information for the plaintiffs’ lawyers. The complaint also wants Twitter to “reinstate female employees who wish to return to their jobs,” and seeks an award for “compensatory and any other appropriate damages, including emotional distress and punitive damages[.]”

“Women at Twitter never had a decent shot at being treated fairly once Elon Musk decided to buy the company,” said attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan in an emailed press release. “Instead, they had targets on their backs and regardless of their talent and contributions, they were at greater risk of losing their jobs than men. This is the fourth federal complaint we have filed against Musk’s Twitter and, because we know he thinks he is above the law, I don’t expect it to be the last.”

An amended complaint, also filed Wednesday, in a separate lawsuit alleges that Twitter violated both federal and state law regarding paid parental leave by disproportionately targeting for termination employees who were either on or about to be on family or medical leaves of absence. That complaint had previously alleged that the company violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by not allowing employees who were particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 to continue working from home and demanding that all employees, with rare exceptions only approved by Musk himself, to work from the company’s offices.

In a previously-filed complaint, employees have alleged that Musk violated state and federal law by failing to provide adequate notice of the mass layoffs.

Twitter did not immediately respond to Law&Crime’s request for comment.

Read the sex discrimination lawsuit here.

Read the ADA discrimination lawsuit here.

[Phot by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for the Met Museum/Vogue.]

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