Uber Under Fire Once Again Following Sexism and Harassment Claims

CEO Travis Kalanick has ordered an investigation in response to a blog post by a former employee.
Uber Under Fire Once Again Following Sexism and Harassment Claims
Image credit: Uber

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This weekend, calls to #DeleteUber regained momentum after a former employee named Susan J. Fowler published a blog post about the sexism and harassment she allegedly experienced during her year at the ride-hailing company. 

In response, embattled CEO Travis Kalanick took to Twitter to express his outrage and say that the company’s SVP and Chief Human Resources Officer Liane Hornsey would oversee an investigation into Fowler’s claims.

On her blog, Fowler, who is now an engineer at mobile payments startup Stripe, prefaces her story as “strange, fascinating and slightly horrifying.” She then details an early interaction with a male manager, explaining that this individual told her he was in an open relationship and propositioned her to have sex with him. Fowler recounts taking screenshots of the messages and reporting him to Uber’s human resources department.

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“I was told by both HR and upper management that even though this was clearly sexual harassment and he was propositioning me, it was this man's first offense, and that they wouldn't feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to,” Fowler writes. “Upper management told me that he ‘was a high performer’ (i.e. had stellar performance reviews from his superiors) and they wouldn't feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake on his part.”

Fowler writes that HR told her she could move to another team and not interact with the manager again, or stay on the team and potentially receive a negative performance review from him. She says she learned that other employees had experienced similar interactions with him and had reported him, but there had been no consequences for his behavior.

“It became obvious that both HR and management had been lying about this being ‘his first offense,’ and it certainly wasn't his last. Within a few months, he was reported once again for inappropriate behavior, and those who reported him were told it was still his ‘first offense.’ … Myself and a few of the women who had reported him in the past decided to all schedule meetings with HR to insist that something be done. In my meeting, the rep I spoke with told me that he had never been reported before, he had only ever committed one offense (in his chats with me) and that none of the other women who they met with had anything bad to say about him, so no further action could or would be taken. It was such a blatant lie that there was really nothing I could do.”

Fowler also discusses a competition-driven culture at Uber, which she describes as a chaotic “game-of-thrones political war” that led many engineers to become concerned that a project or team could dissolve without warning. At one point, she writes that she received a negative review accompanied by the explanation, “‘performance problems aren't always something that has to do with work, but sometimes can be about things outside of work or your personal life.’”

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However, Fowler writes that when her next performance review period arrived and she attempted to transfer to another team, she discovered that her previous score had been changed in the intervening time without her knowledge and that she could not advance to another project.

While her manager told her that the review would not have a significant impact, she says that it did affect her standing with the computer science graduate program she was attending at Stanford, because she was being sponsored by Uber and high performance scores were a requirement.

“It turned out that keeping me on the team made my manager look good, and I overheard him boasting to the rest of the team that even though the rest of the teams were losing their women engineers left and right, he still had some on his team. When I joined Uber, the organization I was part of was over 25 percent women. By the time I was trying to transfer to another eng organization, this number had dropped down to less than 6 percent,” Fowler writes, citing disorganization and institutional sexism as the two main factors behind the exits.

Fowler recounts keeping a record of sexist incidents that occurred, as well as of her last meetings with HR and management before moving on to Stripe.

“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). … 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.”

Fowler describes a final meeting with her manager, who threatened to fire her for reporting his manager to HR. She then reported him to Uber’s CTO and to HR, who “both admitted that this was illegal, but none of them did anything. (I was told much later that they didn't do anything because the manager who threatened me ‘was a high performer’).”

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Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post and CEO and founder of Thrive Global, who became Uber’s first woman board member last year, will be working with Hornsey on the investigation. 

Cristina Cordova, who oversees Stripe’s partnerships team and the company’s diversity and inclusion initiatives, tweeted about why she thought Fowler’s story was generating such an impassioned response.

While Fowler’s claims about Uber are damning, hers is not the only story of institutional sexism in Silicon Valley.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, women hold an average of 30 percent of the jobs within top tech firms. In a study released last year examining gender bias in Silicon Valley, 60 percent of respondents said they have experienced unwanted sexual advances, and 60 percent of those who reported the behavior were, like Fowler, “dissatisfied with the course of action.”

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