Will Uber’s Very Public Sexual Harassment Debacle Actually Change Things For Women in Tech?

feature image via Business Insider

In case y’all haven’t seen Susan J. Fowler’s blog post yet, here’s the gist of it: Fowler, who joined Uber as a site reliability engineer, left the company after a year of sexual harassment, unlawful and unethical management behavior and an HR department that could’ve been run by the Marx Brothers. After repeated attempts at reporting the shady bullshit she endured as a lady engineer and being retaliated against, she got a job at Stripe. If you haven’t read the whole blog post yet, go read it and come back.

It’s true that there are elements to Fowler’s account that make it exceptional. It’s really well-documented, for instance, and the company behaved so much like cartoon villains that it’s textbook harassment. On her very first day with her new team, her manager propositioned her for sex:

After the first couple of weeks of training, I chose to join the team that worked on my area of expertise, and this is where things started getting weird. On my first official day rotating on the team, my new manager sent me a string of messages over company chat. He was in an open relationship, he said, and his girlfriend was having an easy time finding new partners but he wasn’t. He was trying to stay out of trouble at work, he said, but he couldn’t help getting in trouble, because he was looking for women to have sex with. It was clear that he was trying to get me to have sex with him, and it was so clearly out of line that I immediately took screenshots of these chat messages and reported him to HR.

Nothing was done. HR said it was probably an innocent mistake on his part. And that’s not even the most incompetent Uber HR gets in this whole debacle! After she caught them in an outright lie about this guy, and after reporting other weird bias incidents, HR made decisions that make me question…well gosh, pretty much every assumption we have about working in the United States, I guess. Almost like they were making a video on how not to HR, except they were actually doing the things:

The HR rep began the meeting by asking me if I had noticed that *I* was the common theme in all of the reports I had been making, and that if I had ever considered that I might be the problem. I pointed out that everything I had reported came with extensive documentation and I clearly wasn’t the instigator (or even a main character) in the majority of them – she countered by saying that there was absolutely no record in HR of any of the incidents I was claiming I had reported (which, of course, was a lie, and I reminded her I had email and chat records to prove it was a lie). She then asked me if women engineers at Uber were friends and talked a lot, and then asked me how often we communicated, what we talked about, what email addresses we used to communicate, which chat rooms we frequented, etc. –  an absurd and insulting request that I refused to comply with. When I pointed out how few women were in SRE, she recounted with a story about how sometimes certain people of certain genders and ethnic backgrounds were better suited for some jobs than others, so I shouldn’t be surprised by the gender ratios in engineering. Our meeting ended with her berating me about keeping email records of things, and told me it was unprofessional to report things via email to HR.

It’s also exceptional in that the blog post actually incited action. Two days after its publication, Uber hired former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to lead the internal investigation, a service he’s also performed in response to racist practices at AirBNB. The optics of it are wonderful—Holder is well-respected, honest and fair. Arianna Huffington is also all up in this investigation as a board member. But it’s still an internal investigation; no matter who’s been hired to do it, Uber is still paying. We have to remain skeptical (as skeptical as critics have been about AirBNB’s implementation of Holder’s findings).

I had a whole different Queer Your Tech planned about this. I had a whole paragraph about how I’ve been writing a novel set at a tech company for the better part of three years, how I use my imagination to come up with the very worst things a tech company could do in regards to harassment and sexism. In that paragraph I outline how breathtaking it is to see exact lines of dialogue that I dreamed up out of my head and research appear in Fowler’s blog post, but how it is not shocking, because this is the average woman’s experience in the tech industry.

How the phrase “It’s the first time this has come to my attention” appears in Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s statement, and how disingenuous that sounds. While I’m sure he meant it’s the first time he’s heard Fowler’s particular situation, we’ve all seen this before. Otherwise how would I have been able to literally invent a fictional composite of women’s experiences in the industry that turned out to have, nearly word for word, some of the same arguments used against Fowler?

I’m not a damn psychic. And how could we have written a piece on women’s experiences in the industry in 2013 that seems unchanged from then until now? And how could we have written about how frustrated we were that we were stuck at the storytelling phase of things in 2015, that people still weren’t believing women and moving into doing something about it? Are we really still pretending that Uber’s engineering department diversity (3% women) doesn’t have anything to do with this treatment of women? Are we really still pretending that this is only a problem for Uber, a company that’s easy to hate due to its treatment of workers, its dismissal of safety issues, its strike-breaking tendencies and, yes, the fighting nature of its CEO.

Actually, maybe we’re not.

Maybe it’s naive of me, but as more and more comes out surrounding Uber’s complete and total fuck up, I wonder if we’re past the storytelling phase that frustrated me and Chloe so much. I wonder if we’re moving on to action. While I do have so very little faith in internal investigations, one part of Kalanick’s statement stuck out. He closed with “We seek to make Uber a just workplace and there can be absolutely no place for this kind of behavior at Uber — and anyone who behaves this way or thinks this is OK will be fired.” It would be really nice to see employees who do this kind of thing actually face consequences. It remains to be seen whether Uber will act on these fighting words.

The way other people are talking about this also signals a directional shift in how we deal. Aimee Lucido, a software engineer currently at Uber, wrote this powerful post on Medium that talks real, actual steps in the wake of Fowler’s account. Here’s a highlight, but I suggest you go read that entire thing as well:

Spread Susan’s story.

Ask your out-of-center friends to hear their stories.

Listen to those stories.

Recognize your unconscious bias.

Take unconscious bias training.

Be an active ally.

When you see something, say something.

Recognize that while sexism is sometime the most obvious ism in Silicon Valley, it is far from the only one.

And most importantly, don’t let yourself think that this is solely Uber’s problem. Without a doubt, this is a bad situation, and Uber has a lot to clean up. But this was a problem last week, and no matter how much we shouted about it, no one was listening.

As you’re sitting there, reading this post, thanking your lucky stars that your company isn’t like this, remember that the contents of Susan’s post were surprising specifically because Uber employees didn’t think that it was a problem.

So are we finally moving past storytelling? I obviously don’t know, yet. We won’t know for a while. But people are speaking about this differently, and that certainly is something.

Staff Writer for Autostraddle, Part-time Faculty at The New School (teaching digital storytelling), Managing Editor for Scholar & Feminist Online at Barnard Center for Research On Women. Follow me on Twitter @AEOsworth or on Instagram, also @AEOsworth.

A.E. has written 542 articles for us.

7 Comments

  1. I’m a physician and the harassment (not sexual for me but gender based) was and is astounding. Even to this day my partners make “jokes” ‘the bigger the boobs the smaller the brain’ on rounds in front of students, nurses and other team members.

    Back when I was a resident the gender harassment and blatent discrimination was astounding. My first day as an intern I was told I should be seen and not heard. I finally went to HR and the director of education when one of the teching physicians (attending) began to single me out. I had meetings documented the harassment etc. They mostly gave me the impression that I was being paranoid. 6 months later he tried to get me fired. Everything I reported and feared came true. I went back to HR and the education director they took his side and said maybe I’m just bad at my job. (I had never had a bad evaluation in 3 years until he came into the group) I had to threaten lawsuits to save my job. I went through the probation process they wanted because I had to finish my training. I needed to get out of there.

    But it wasn’t just me. 2 other women in my group have similar stories. We did less procedures, were given less autonomy caring for patients and during procedures were restricted by how much we could do. (If you observed when a male resident was with the same teaching attending the resident would perform almost the whole case independently.)

    Our education was grossly weaker then our male counterparts, there were active movements to restrict our responsibility and then remove us from the program and our concerns were brushed aside and then dismissed all together when the concerns became concrete examples.

    Now as a Female attending physician I am brushed to the side by my male partners. My decisions are undermined. Even in my own surgeries my male partners try to take over and make inappropriate comments on skill or decision making infront of my team.

    I can go on forever…

    But one last point. For simplicity I’ll use 1.00 as my pay. My 20 year senior partner males 1.77. Which means I would need to get a 4% raise each year to catch up with him in 20 years (ignoring inflation). In the 3 years I’ve been here I have gotten a 1.2% raise 1 time (despite inflation).

    So Uber engineer… and all women out there… you are not alone. The fight is real.

    NEVERTHELESS SHE PERSISTED!!

  2. I think the second post-Susan piece, by Aimee, also is a bit problematic. I’ll include the below passage from it below:

    “Uber doesn’t always realize it, or appreciate it, but I have made a difference. I’ve seen it. One of the senior product managers in the driver org told me the other day that he hadn’t heard of unconscious bias before he met me. I advise women at the company on how to deal with their managers, how to ask for promotions, or even just to complain about how we feel unheard. I lead diversity & inclusion programs in driver, I am deeply involved in community outreach for LadyEng, and I’m speaking at our all-female technology conference in March.

    None of this would have happened if I had walked out.”

    For me, Aimee’s response felt like the “I’m in it still-it’s not perfect-for sure!-But I’m in it” line from those still locked in to their system, and still rationalizing things. That last line above, “None of this would have happened if I had walked out,” makes me think of the subtle judgement we can do to each other–“the woman who walks away could have really done something…” rather than really sit with what that woman, or women, or people of color, queers, etc, are walking away from, and how we may contribute to that culture of “Leaving,” even if we’re working to prevent it.

    And one thing that’s not mentioned in the second piece is how BRAVE Susan was–because leaving is brave and speaking out is brave. Living with the blowback and trolls and people accusing her in different ways that we can’t see–that’s really brave.

    Thinking about diversity and equity in my own work (social sector, not tech), I often think of stories like Susan’s as “bodies on the road.” Each person is a living example of an organization’s failure, and each story is often heralded and lifted up by “those who stay.” I am someone who is staying right now, but I also know that I still exist in a system that failed them, or that is slowly “growing better” because of their sacrifice. If anything, I as a “stayer” reap the benefits from their loss, their frustration, because what failed for them is helping shift the focus to what might work better (for me).

    I think there will still need to be a lot of storytelling–for all genders, because even this blazing fire that Susan left, in wonderful detail, I think it will still be difficult for many people to sit “with their feelings” about how they may contribute to a harmful culture until they hear things over and over again.

    I respect everyone who decides to take a different path than “staying.”

  3. This is one reason it makes me uncomfortable to see people pushing the “get girls interested in STEM!” message so hard, as if that’s the only thing wrong with the women-in-STEM situation. It’s such a feel-good message — it’s easy to be on board with that, it’s heart-warming to see little girls wearing lab goggles and playing with science kits. But it also erases that MANY WOMEN AND GIRLS ARE ALREADY INTERESTED IN STEM and then leave the field because of harassment, which is a much more uncomfortable message.

  4. As a woman in college studying computer science I can see these men getting ready to go out into the Ubers of the world without having any sexist or biased beliefs challenged. I sit in a class full of bright engineers where only 20-30% are women (and just about none are black) and listen to some ass talk about ‘hot girls’ and generally objectify women in disgusting ways. The professor in ear-shot doesn’t step in, no other students step in. This is one incident of many in a program with hundreds of future engineers.

    Where is the change going to come from if no one is willing to step in and force change (and frankly maturity)? It certainly shouldn’t fall solely on the shoulders of women, which is what troubles me most about Aimee’s response. I applaud her efforts, but how much further ahead do her male coworkers get when they’re not devoting 20% of their time to gendered issues? I’m not studying computer science to educate my male peers and future coworkers. If our colleges and companies care so much about improving diversity then the onus is on them, not women in STEM.

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