Nicki Broderick arrived promptly at 9:30 a.m. on June 13, 2011, for her first day as an employee at the video game developer Blizzard Entertainment.
Lined up in front of her keyboard she found a row of shots—she thinks they were Fireball Whisky—apparently to acknowledge that it was also Broderick’s 21st birthday. She’d never done shots before, at any time of day, but downed them with her manager. It was the first time Broderick, who spent eight years at Blizzard, felt forced to drink at work. But it was far from the last. Later, during a work trip to Korea, Broderick says she was instructed not to refuse any drinks on a celebratory evening out with colleagues from a company that had partnered with Blizzard on an e-sports event, lest the vendor be offended.
“They made me drink until I was blackout drunk,” Broderick tells Fortune. “I don’t even know how I got back to my hotel that night.”
Broderick’s experience was extreme, but hardly unique. More than two dozen women told Fortune that for most of Blizzard’s three-decade history they felt they were treated differently from men. In fact, they say, the demeaning and bullying behavior often began the moment a woman arrived. During new employee onboarding, men would walk by to, as some put it, “check out the crop”—meaning, of women. When a woman arrived for her first day of work, “there would literally be a group of men around her so you couldn’t even see her,” says a female current longtime employee. In the quality assurance department, according to multiple employees, including Broderick, for a time there was a spreadsheet to rank new hires on a “hotness” scale from 1 to 10—listing a woman’s best features and whether she was available or not.
Nicki Broderick, former Activision Blizzard employee, in Mission Viejo, Calif. Employees are speaking out against harassment and toxic work culture at Activision Blizzard.
Some women say they quickly learned to avoid answering questions about relationship status. “Otherwise, these guys wouldn’t work with me, or wouldn’t go out of their way to help me out or get me engaged on a project,” a female former employee tells Fortune.
Blizzard, the 31-year-old video game powerhouse known for World of Warcraft and Overwatch, is a division of Activision Blizzard, which ranks No. 373 on the Fortune 500. In 2008, Activision acquired Blizzard’s parent company, and the video game maker became a unit of Activision. Still, Blizzard long retained its own distinctive culture—one that many former and current employees describe as toxic.
The workplace issues at Blizzard have come to the fore thanks to a July 2021 suit brought by California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) alleging gender discrimination, harassment, and retaliation—this after a more than two-year investigation into the company that began in 2018.The 29-page court filing and the subsequent 35-page amended complaint assert that the company “fostered a sexist culture” by paying women less than men despite instances in which employees performed substantially similar work; assigned women to lower-level jobs and promoted them at slower rates compared with men; fired or forced women to quit more frequently than men; and subjected women to “constant sexual harassment.” As the amended complaint reads, “Female employees almost universally confirmed that working for Defendants was akin to working in a frat house, which invariably involved male employees drinking and subjecting female employees…to sexual harassment with no repercussion.” The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also filed suit against the company in September for sexual harassment and pregnancy discrimination. (Activision denied “all allegations of wrongdoing,” and said it had agreed to settle the DFEH suit to avoid “the expense, distraction and possible litigation associated with such a dispute”. The company also sent Fortune a list of 15 recent changes it had instituted to improve workplace conditions, including a November policy to ban alcohol in the workplace, and waiving required arbitration of individual sexual harassment and discrimination claims.)
Over a period of several months, Fortune interviewed 29 current and former Blizzard employees about their experience. Taken together they paint a dark and complicated picture of how Blizzard, a vibrant and outrageously successful gaming startup that for its first three years employed not a single woman, became part of a Fortune 500 company that routinely allowed women to be harassed, belittled, and discriminated against. You can read the full story here.
This story was originally featured on Fortune.com