Receive free Biotech updates
US biotech start-up Grail is being sued by three former female employees who claimed that it fostered a “toxic work culture” for women by failing to properly respond to their complaints about sexual harassment, racial discrimination and a hostile environment.
Grail, a Silicon Valley-based start-up that pioneered an all-in-one blood test for early cancer detection, created a “bro” and “frat house” culture and a “sexually charged, hostile work environment”, according to the lawsuits.
The start-up is a subsidiary of the world’s biggest gene sequencing company Illumina, which acquired it for $7bn in 2021. Grail’s early investors included Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.
According to the lawsuits, two of the former employees claimed they left Grail after their complaints about inappropriate behaviour from senior executives were not adequately addressed and they faced retaliation for speaking out.
The third woman said she was fired while on a leave of absence for stress after she had notified Grail of her intention to take legal action to remedy what she alleged was a hostile work environment.
The allegations against Grail, filed in three separate lawsuits, are the latest in a number of sexual harassment and discrimination cases brought against companies in the male-dominated technology and biotech sectors. A survey in 2020 commissioned by Women Who Tech, a non-profit advocacy group, found that 44 per cent of women founders said they had been harassed.
Grail said it was “committed to robust and fair employee practices that create a thriving, high-performing, productive, diverse, inclusive and engaged workforce” and that its “workplace policies prohibit unlawful discrimination or retaliation”.
It added: “We take seriously, review and investigate all reported workplace complaints . . . We are reviewing the allegations in these complaints, and are confident that the claims are without merit. We will vigorously defend against these allegations.”
Illumina declined to comment.
One of the complainants, Mary Tantum, who worked as an associate director of product marketing at Grail, claimed in court filings that an “epidemic of discrimination, harassment and retaliation has taken over Grail”.
Tantum alleged that she was groped by a male senior executive at a work party last year, according to court filings. He has since left the company. The incident occurred on the same day that the executive and another male employee drank beer throughout a work meeting in which Tantum was pitching to be promoted, she claimed.
Tantum said she felt “embarrassed, ashamed and furious” but chose not to report the incident for fear of retaliation. However, a third party reported the incident to Grail’s human resources department. After a “sham investigation” Tantum was told that the investigation was being closed because the harassment could not be corroborated, according to her lawsuit.
A second complainant, Linda Mansolillo, who was Grail’s director of national accounts, alleged that the same former senior male executive, as well as a female executive who has also since left the company, created a “sexually charged work environment” that made other employees uncomfortable.
The female executive told Mansolillo that she and the male executive were good friends who “love to party” and “know each other’s fuck buddies”, according to the lawsuit.
Mansolillo said shortly after joining Grail in 2020 that the results of a survey of employees highlighted concerns, including accusations of gender bias, a general lack of women executives, and a high number of abrupt departures by women in the previous year, according to the lawsuit.
At the time she was asked to join a women’s leadership group but it “proved to be just one of several examples where Grail leadership would publicly adopt a stance designed to promote the appearance that the company was enacting progressive policies . . . while in actuality Grail continued to undermine and retaliate against women”, her lawsuit said.
Mansolillo and Tantum alleged that they were denied promotion opportunities or salary increases after they raised their concerns.
A third woman, Kim Trang Thi Bui Cheung, who worked in Grail’s sales department, is suing the company for harassment and discrimination in relation to its handling of racist comments.
She alleged that she complained to Grail human resources that a subordinate who made a racist comment about Vietnamese people at a public sales event was not adequately punished and that the person in question was later awarded a cash bonus.
Cheung alleged that she was fired from her job when she retained legal counsel to try to force the company to address what she claimed was a hostile work environment.
The three women left the company between late 2022 and early 2023. They are each suing for unspecified damages in relation to loss of earnings and mental and emotional distress “that will sufficiently punish [the] defendants and make an example of them and deter future conduct”.
They are all represented by Santa Monica-based The Vora Law Firm.
Grail was originally formed as a subsidiary of Illumina in 2015 but was spun off a year later to raise funds from outside investors. It raised $2bn over the next four years in five funding rounds, including from Gates, Bezos Expeditions, Google Ventures, Arch Venture Partners and others.
Illumina’s decision to buy back Grail in 2021 has been the subject of intense scrutiny from competition regulators. This week it was fined €432mn by the EU for proceeding with the takeover before the bloc’s antitrust watchdog had decided whether to approve the deal.
The US Federal Trade Commission in April also opposed the deal and ordered Illumina to unwind the merger. Illumina has said it will appeal against the EU fine and is appealing against the US decision.