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.