At SHE Community: Former Employees Reveal Toxic Workplace and Labour Rights Violations

Does the SHE Community truly walk the walk when it comes to diversity and gender equality? Or is it just lip service?

Every year, the SHE Conference is held and is said to be the biggest gender equality conference in Europe. On their website, it reads “SHE 2022 has become one of the world’s leading events focused on Equity and Social responsibility, Inclusion, Sustainability, and Innovation.”

The conference is powered by the SHE Community, which was founded by Heidi Aven in 2014 and now also runs mentorship and investment programs. Their main agenda is to play a role in creating change that closes the gender gap and believes that “equality and diversity are crucial components for any business of tomorrow, not only because equality is fair, but because equality actually makes businesses more profitable. In a globalized economy, businesses have to have diversity represented in their market. Equality and diversity bread understanding and communication.”

From the outside, SHE sounds like a very progressive organisation that is committed to diversity, equality and inclusion. However, after The Oslo Desk spoke to a few former employees, they painted a different picture.

Behind the SHE Conference walls, there is an extremely narrow focus on what “diversity” means, its leaders are not open-minded, it’s chaotic and all of that fosters a very toxic work environment.

The Oslo Desk spoke to three previous employees, but only one would go on the record, others said they did not want to be named due to fear of repercussions or because they had signed a non-disclosure agreement. They painted a very different picture and described SHE workplace as “chaotic” and in “constant change”.

Ellen Young is one of SHE Community’s former employees who sought legal action when they terminated her work contract illegally. Young is now a DEI consultant at Variety Pack.

She joined SHE Community in august 2020, while she was studying her master’s in gender studies and felt that it was a step up in her professional career, “I have been a barista for so long, I have worked at restaurants, bars, brewery, and things like that […]”

Young was hired to write articles for SHE Insight, an online magazine dedicated to equality and diversity which was freshly launched and funded by Innovation Norway. Having had a stressful year, where she was temporarily laid off at her restaurant job during the covid pandemic, when Young was poached to quit her 50% restaurant job to work for SHE community, she went for it.

“I was told it would be equivalent to what I had- 50%. Then they dragged their feet on actually signing contracts, etc. When I was shocked at the 5%, I was told she could offer me a 20% contract, but that I would work 50%. I agreed to this not really knowing the meaning of it.” 

After a month of joining, the manager she was under left and was put under a content manager. When Young got asked by friends and acquaintances on what SHE does, she was unable to answer and was confused about what her deliverables were for the company.

“There is a lot of confusion, […] and they were saying a lot, but they weren’t giving good directions. They weren’t giving call-to-actions. When you are an employee you never knew what they expected and what they wanted out of you.”

Gender Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in Question

Issues of a toxic work environment started when an editor was hired for SHE Insight. The new editor allegedly remarked that “paternity leave in Norway is bad because women want to stay at home and take care of their kids and now men are invading their space,” which left Young feeling deeply uncomfortable and felt there was a lack of understanding of what gender equality is.

Former Employee One also concurred with Young, “I feel like the organisation had a very narrow view of what gender equality was. […] They were more focused on binary gender equality: women/men.”

When it came to diversity and inclusion, both Young and Former Employee One felt it was lacking, “SHE stands for equality and diversity, that’s what they promote, but they’re very much focused on it in the investment environment. When asked who are we targeting they tend to focus on targeting young and aged 40+ people rising in their careers who faced challenges making their way through the workplace,” said Former Employee One. “However, they’re really targeting (main demographic) younger white Norwegian women. These are the people who really want to connect with SHE. It is not a very broad ambition of equality and diversity. They focus on wealth, women who are investing.”

Young had been pitching ideas to the new editor, such as writing about a prominent political activist and volunteer with Pakistan roots who was encouraging Muslim girls to do extracurricular activities, and proposed that a scholarship for one or two non-privileged women to take the investment course. These were shot down. Furthermore, her gender studies were often mocked by the editor as she didn’t see any gender issues in Norway.

“Every idea I had was stupid, my writing was horrible, I didn’t perform interviews very well. She had me interview her friend. […] I wrote the article but when [editor name] got it she thought it was garbage, and said that her friend doesn’t remember saying any of this.” Ellen had the recording and offered to show her, but she refused to take a look at it.

“There wasn’t even a chance for Ellen to do her job. And it happened out of the blue, constantly changing direction but they were not supportive, they blamed her,” explained Former Employee One. “Ellen was completely thrown from the bus, it wasn’t handled well. They justified this behaviour by being a startup, and startups are moving fast.”

Young believed that the editor’s political views on gender did not allow her the freedom to explore topics that were more liberal feminism. And started to question her work hours. For fear of being fired and her bad experiences in the past, Young started to keep a spreadsheet of the hours she worked. Young felt unfairly treated and bullied so she took this up to the CEO.

Young was already writing for other publications locally and from the UK, so she doesn’t understand why she was receiving good feedback externally but not in SHE Community. The accumulated stress from work had caused Young to postpone working on her master’s thesis for a few months. She eventually graduated on time.  

It was at a work meeting that Young realised that her tasks were significantly changed, “Your work roles have changed, I shouldn’t have to tell you this in front of other people. She just flipped out for 20 minutes. […] Nothing had been in writing.”

Heidi reached out to Young and acknowledged the harsh conversation, and told her that she would find her a new role. Her colleagues also rang her up to see if she was okay and didn’t understand why she was treated more harshly than the others.

Former Employee Two had signed a non-disclosure agreement where she cannot discuss in public about the parties involved negatively and what she felt dissatisfied with. However, she does confirm Young’s story and does not think that she was incompetent at all.

A team of 8 employees sent a letter in form of an email to CEO Heidi Aven and two other leaders around February 2021 raising concerns about their work condition.

Email sent to SHE Community leaders

Subject: Increasing Professionalism and Job Satisfaction at SHE Community
Date: Thursday, February 4th, 2021

SHE Community’s scale-up phase began over half a year ago, and after working as a team for this time, we’d like to address steps that should be taken to increase professionalism and create a better work experience for all.

A moment must be taken before proceeding to acknowledge the dismissal of an employee, where the reasons stated were because of finances, while hours for other employees were subsequently increased. There has been little transparency about finances with the team. Since the scale-up phase, there has not been a solvency report where projects have been judged as being on budget, over budget or otherwise. This creates a severe sense of instability for employees, and leads to the first point of desired improvement:

  1. Increased transparency surrounding financial health, budgets and profits.

With the introduction of new managers in October, their responsibilities and those under them have since changed with little to no notice. Examples being the Community Platform being taken on and off the runway, and online courses and webinars being sidelined. This has also resulted in employee instability, leading to the next point of desired improvement:

  1. Increased transparency surrounding company shifts or pivots, specifically referring to when a project is dropped, postponed, or radically altered.

With the introduction of aforementioned managers, there has been some improvement using channels.

  1. This should be strengthened with minimized bypass of managers and instant requests, with more trust in employee skillsets and planning.

We’re united in a goal for gender equality, diversity and inclusion and we want this reflected in the workplace in a way that it hasn’t previously been. As our work subject is something that can have varied viewpoints, this can lead to differing opinions in how to represent information. 

  1. Increased professionalism and respect in the work environment. 

We’re coming on the most exciting and productive period for SHE Community and want to address this as a team matter wherein improving the work environment and reinforcing positive actions will lead to increased job satisfaction and productivity. Future communication should occur over email or as a group meeting.

After the letter was sent to the CEO and managers, Young and the Former Employee One felt their concerns were dismissed. The group leader who sent the email was later warned by the new editor for getting involved in an SMS message, “I appreciate your initiative and your wanting to address issues. Apart from this being probably the worst timing during the entire year – we are working day and night, I would like to give you a friendly advice because I very much appreciate everything you are doing and I do believe you can have many possibilities in this company: to get involved in office drama and be the voice of others may not always be the most fruitful. […]”

Young was called in for a meeting, not so long after the letter was sent out, that her contract would be terminated due to lack of funds. Young eventually had to seek a lawyer and requested a formal termination letter. That day, her email and her role on the website were deleted. They came to a bitter settlement.

In an email, Innovation Norway confirmed that SHE Community AS received a grant of 525 000 NOK in 2017, a loan of 1,5 million NOK in 2019 and a special corona measure grant in 2020 of 3,22 million NOK.

An Activist and DEI Advocate View

Rahwa Yohannes, activist and director at Manifold Norway, appeared at a panel discussion alongside the Prime Minister of Canada at this year’s SHE Conference. On SHE’s diversity, inclusion and gender equality agenda, she said “It depends on how you see gender equality. For me, gender equality includes all genders from all ethnicities and walks of life. From what I’ve seen, there seem to be certain groups missing. The origins of the conference being Norway, I haven’t seen the successful POC (People of Colour) in Norway that have done important work well enough represented.”

She continued, “Until this year, the people of African descent I have seen participating in the conference are artists, athletes and diversity experts, which reproduces the same constructs of black excellence being limited to these three categories. I also do not recall seeing trans women or gender non-conforming people represented. My opinion is that you don’t achieve true diversity if everyone (BIPOC, dis(abled), and all genders) aren’t represented.”

At this year’s conference, she said “I will say that this is their best year yet seeing as how it is ‘more’ diverse and had people from Norway participating and some of their segments were good but they still have a long way to go.”

The Oslo Desk reached out to the founder, Heidi Aven, for a response, “We at SHE, are passionate about diversity and inclusion and bringing justice to each workplace around the globe.”

Aven continued, “Last year we managed to organize the largest digital arena within the D&I space during the lockdown. SHE is a startup/late scaleup with a very small team with great ambitions, and I recognize that realizing our goals has been at times chaotic. I do want to assure you that everything relating to SHE Community has been done with the best intentions in mind. We are always open to constructive feedback and looking for ways to improve ourselves, our processes, and our platforms. We also recognize that SHE, now having grown in size and magnitude requires more structure and predictability to enable further growth in a good way and to avoid fall-out in our internal processes. So, to bring this to bear within our own working environment, we have recently hired Astrid Skaugseth as our new CEO. Astrid has many years of experience from EY – also with internal structures and company culture- and we are truly looking forward to evolving SHE Community to new levels of connection, impact, and positive dialogues – under Astrid’s leadership, guidance and vision.”

Ellen Young reflected on her experiences, “This was so stressful. To come to Norway, and you know, you have this stereotype of Norway in your mind that it is gender equality, that it is equal, and it’s a fantastic place to live and to just feel so crushed every day. It’s just been a nightmare.”

The Oslo Desk had tried to reach out to more former employees, but many did not answer or didn’t want to be interviewed. If you have been affected by your working conditions or would like to have your say about SHE Community, contact us at team@oslodesk.com.

Resource on Norway Workers’ Rights in English and other languages:

To understand the context of the journalism work for this publication, we are sharing two resources regarding the impact of Non-Disclosure Agreements and working with anonymous sources:

Columbia Journalism Review: Contracts of Silence
How the non-disclosure agreement become a tool for powerful people to stymie journalists from informing the public

How New York Times uses anonymous sources

CategoriesGlocal Affairs
Ka Man Mak

Ka Man is an investigative journalist, documentary photographer, and social entrepreneur, as well as the founder of The Oslo Desk. She is a British-born Hong Konger residing in Oslo, Norway. She holds a Master in Environmental Geoscience and have taken numerous diplomas including child psychology, and a course in big data analytics at OsloMet. Made numerous publications in newsletters, magazines and Norwegian newspapers. Interested in edtech, constructive journalism, women in migration, Cantonese language, alternatives to capitalism and asylum policy.