Professionalism/Susan Fowler, Uber, and Workplace Sexual Harassment

IntroductionEdit

Susan Fowler was an engineer at Uber from November 2015 to December 2016. She was a whistle blower about sexual harassment and other issues at Uber.[1]

Susan Fowler's Blog PostEdit

On February 19, 2017, Susan Fowler made a blog post about her experience at Uber. She said that after training, joining a team, and getting a new manager that "it was clear that he was trying to get me to have sex with him."[1] Fowler took screenshots of conversations with her manager and reported him to HR. Fowler hoped that reporting her manager to HR would fix the situation, but it didn't. HR responded by saying this was "clearly sexual harassment" but since this was the manager's first offense, "they wouldn't feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to."[1] Fowler claims she was told that her manager was a "high performer" and thus upper management was not comfortable "punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake."[1] HR and management said they sternly talked to her manager but did not want to do anything to "ruin his career over his first offense."[1]

Fowler said she was given a choice: she could change teams and managers or she could stay where she was. She was told he current manager "would most likely give [her] a poor performance review when the time came."[1] The poor review may come in response to her actions but would not be counted as retaliation against Fowler as she had been "given an option" to leave the team.[1]

After deciding to change teams, Fowler met more women engineers at Uber. She was "surprised that some of them had stories similar to [her] own."[1] According to Fowler, "some of the women even had stories about reporting the exact same manager."[1] It was clear to Fowler that HR and management were lying about this being the first offense. Even after more complaints, people were still told this was the manager's first offense and nothing was done. Fowler contends that Uber HR insisted that the other women did not say anything bad about her former manager.[1]

After finishing her projects, Fowler wanted to transfer to a new team. Her current manager blocked her transfer. After receiving great score, Fowler's "performance review and score had been changed."[1] She claims her manager said the new negative review had no real-world consequences, which was a lie. This had "impacts to [her] salary and bonuses" as well as no longer qualifying for the Uber sponsored Stanford computer science graduate program.[1] Fowler contends that keeping her on the team made her manager look good and that she even heard him boasting about being able to keep female engineers on his team.[1]

Fowler recalled another sexist event at Uber. All the site reliability engineers (SREs) were going to get leather jackets from Uber. However, the women were told they would no longer be getting leather jackets as there were not enough women in the organization.[1] Uber was receiving a discount on the men's jackets but not on the women's jackets. The women were told that although over 100 men were getting jackets, it would not be fair for the women to get more expensive jackets. If the women wanted jackets, they would have to find jackets that were the same price as the discounted men's jackets.[1]

Fowler met with HR after reporting the jacket issue. She was told that she was the common theme in all of her reports, implying that she was the issue.[1] Fowler was told that her email reports to HR were unprofessional. She also met with her manager where he told her he was upset about Fowler reporting his manager to HR. He threatened to fire Fowler if she continued to report things to HR.[1] Less than a week later, Fowler had a new job offer and was planning to leave Uber.

Throughout the blog post, Fowler mentioned the number of female SREs at Uber. When she started in November 2015, the department was 25% female. When she left in December 2016, the department was only 3% female and had over 150 engineers.[1]

Past Controversy at UberEdit

Even before Fowler's blog post, Uber had come under heavy scrutiny. In 2013, an Uber driver had allegedly used nationalistic and homophobic insults before physically hitting a passenger.[2] While Uber deactivated the driver from the Uber phone app, "the company denies any liability for how the.. drivers behave." Many cases such as this had emerged, but Uber did not take any preventative action against them. This lack of initiative caused Uber services to temporarily be banned in New Delhi.[3] A sexual assault charge against an Uber driver revealed that Uber’s screening processes might have been inadequate, as the driver had a history of sexual assault.

Tired of Uber’s culture, former Pando editor-in-chief Sarah Lacy wrote an article bashing the company for its history of sexism.[4] Lacy primarily cited the misogyny displayed by Travis Kalanick, the Uber CEO at the time, and the toxic culture he has built up. In response to this article, Uber senior executive Emil Michael commented that Uber could hire investigators to "expose" Lacy by "prov[ing] a particular and very specific claim about her personal life".[5] Instead of reflecting on how the media views Uber, the Uber executives discuss how to retaliate against journalists by means such as blackmail. Uber also denied the accuracy of screenshots depicting complaints of sexual assault.[6] While the screenshots show clear complaints of sexual harassment and assault, Uber denies that many of these reports exist.

A similar incident in 2013 saw an Uber driver choke one of his passengers.[7] In response Kalanick sent a dismissive email to his press team. The emails aggressively push that Uber is not "responsible even when these things do go bad", and is not "liable for these incidents that aren’t even real".[7] Across the many incidents surrounding Uber and its drivers, Uber leadership has not shown a genuine interest in customer safety.

Fowler's Impacts on Silicon ValleyEdit

Posts and stories like Fowler’s have inspired many other women to speak up. She inspired Aimee Lucido [8] to speak up about her own experiences in Silicon Valley. While Lucido is a fellow female engineer at Uber, she spoke about her experiences of sexism at Google. She describes the Silicon Valley culture "disgusting and appalling and horrifying and yet … not surpris[ing] at all". Within a week of Fowler’s blog post, another individual under the alias Amy Vertino to write about her own experiences at Uber.[9] Vertino describes her treatment at Uber as "abuse and dehumanizing", citing "chauvinistic, racist and homophobic attributes". She also draws parallels to Fowler’s complaints against upper management and HR. Keala Denea also followed Fowler’s blog post by writing about her own experience.[10] Unsurprisingly, Denea’s complaints highlight "disrespect, condescending managers, and sexism".[10] Many others have followed suit, speaking out against the injustice that they have faced in Silicon Valley.

Fowler’s blog post has also inspired women outside of Uber to speak up about sexual harassment in the tech industry. Just as management is in a position of power over their employees, venture capitalists (VC’s) have influence over startups. VC’s are the ones who provide startups with funding to get started, so startup founders are usually subject to the whims of VC’s. A few months after Fowler’s blog post, Niniane Wang, Susan Ho, and Leiti Hsu stepped forward with the harassment they faced from VC Justin Caldbeck.[11] Wang recalled that Caldbeck had "started to pressure me for sex".[12] Wang did not go public with this information previous because doing so could jeopardize her relationships with other investors. Ho and Hsu, co-founders of a startup, came forward with stories about Caldbeck messaging them inappropriately and groping them.[13] Caldbeck initially denied the allegations, stating "I strongly deny [these] attacks on my character."[14] Within twenty-four hours, Caldbeck publically apologized for his "many mistakes over the course of [his] career".[15] Soon after, Caldbeck took an indefinite leave of absence from his VC firm. Wang attributes Fowler’s post as one of her inspirations for stepping forward.

ConclusionEdit

Fowler's blog post shows that her HR complaints were not handled properly. Her managers and HR ignored the issues and acted improperly. This is similar to the Ring of Gyges. Those with power and no accountability, such as Fowler's managers, may act in unjust ways for their own personal gain. This lack of accountability is also seen through Uber's past controversy.

Fowler's post began attracting attention to the problems within Silicon Valley. Many others like Fowler shared their experiences, bringing these issues of sexism and harassment into the limelight. When the allegations against Caldbeck surfaced, he found himself being held accountable to behavior that was unacceptable, but was previously ignored.

ReferencesEdit

  1. a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Fowler, S. (2017). Reflecting on One Very, Very Strange Year at Uber.https://www.susanjfowler.com/blog/2017/2/19/reflecting-on-one-very-strange-year-at-uber
  2. [1], Sommer, W. (2013). Uber Driver Allegedly Assaults Customer for Burping
  3. [2], Barry, E. and Raj, S. (2014). Uber Banned in India’s capital After Rape Accusation
  4. [3], Lacy, S. (2014). The horrific trickle down of Asshole culture: Why I’ve just deleted Uber from my phone
  5. [4], Smith, B. (2014). Uber Executive Suggests Digging Up Dirt On Journalists
  6. [5], Warzel, C. and Bhuiyan, J. (2016). Internal Data Offers Glimpse At Uber Sex Assault Complaints
  7. a b [6], Tiku, N. (2013). Uber CEO on Driver "Assault": It’s Not Real and We’re Not Responsible
  8. [7], Lucido, A. (2017). Reflecting on Susan Fowler’s Reflections
  9. [8], Vertino, A. (2017). I am an Uber survivor
  10. a b [9], Denea, K. (2017). Sexism at Uber from female managements #UberStory
  11. [10] Albergotti, R. (2017). Silicon Valley Women Tell of VC’s Unwanted Advances
  12. [11] Sydell, L. (2017) How a Female Engineer Built a Public Case Against a Sexual Harasser In Silicon Valley
  13. [12], Ho, S. (2017). My cofounder Leiti Hsu and I are two of three women who went on the record to report Justin Caldbeck’s sexual harassment
  14. [13], Lacy, S. (2017). Founder: Days before scandal broke, Binary’s Justin Caldbeck "tried to use funding to shut me up"
  15. [14] Primack, D. (2017). Justin Caldbeck takes indefinite leave of absence from Binary Capital