By Paula Bernier
Other than the extreme hours, when I image working in Silicon Valley I picture a hospitable environment in which energetic young people frolic around brightly-colored campuses while enjoying free granola bars. While aspects of this romanticized version of that work world may hit close to home, the fact is that Silicon Valley companies suffer from a lot of the same issues as the rest of us do. That includes sexism and related on-the-job harassment – two real-life problems that are no laughing matter.
Recently one of Silicon Valley’s darlings became the poster child for this kind of problem. That company is Uber.
As a result, the company is now making headlines not for its disruptive business model but rather because former Uber engineer Susan Fowler blogged that her supervisor made sexual advances at her, she complained to management, and she was then discriminated against as a result. USA Today reported that hours after the blog was posted Uber opened an investigation led by Liane Hornsey, the company’s new chief of human resources, and former Attorney General Eric Holder.
“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,” Fowler wrote. “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.”
But when she reported it to the Uber human resources department, Fowler continued, they responded that he “was a high performer”, they didn’t want to punish him, and they suggested it was probably just an innocent mistake. The HR department at Uber then allegedly told Fowler her options were to either move to a different team at the company, or stay with the team and be ready for a poor performance review from her supervisor.
“One HR rep even explicitly told me that it wouldn't be retaliation if I received a negative review later because I had been ‘given an option’” she wrote, adding. “I tried to escalate the situation but got nowhere with either HR or with my own management chain.”
After speaking to other women at Uber, some of whom Fowler said conveyed similar stories (some even about the same man), she and some of the other women again approached HR asking that they do something to address the situation. HR never offered to help, and eventually, Fowler said, she requested a transfer to another department. Although Fowler said she had a perfect performance score and project leaders had expressed interest in having her join their teams, she said her transfer was blocked. Uber management told her it was due to her “undocumented performance problems.”
There are a lot of other details in Fowler’s blog. But ultimately, Fowler wrote, she left Uber, as did the man. Fowler departed the company in December and started a new job with Stripe the following month.
The Fowler blog could be an example of why we’ve seen a decline of women in computing. There have been reports that the male-dominated world of tech is often inhospitable for women. And that’s not good for women or for the economy or the workplace as a whole given that there’s a dire shortage of skilled professionals in tech.
TMC is working to raise awareness of such issues as well via its Tech Culture Awards program. It's dedicated to bringing this kind of important information to light and recognizing those companies that are effecting positive change in the workplace. We invite you to explore and participate in the TMC Workplace Excellence Award program including the Tech Culture Award, the Tech Diversity Award, and the Social Responsibility Award.