It’s been all downhill for Uber lately.
The beleaguered company has already been in the limelight recently after their CEO, Travis Kalanick, joined US President Donald Trump’s business advisory board (he later resigned following criticism). But now Uber is under fire again for allegedly harbouring a pervasive internal culture of sexism.
In a blog post published on Sunday, former Uber site reliability engineer (SRE) Susan Fowler wrote about how sexism was rife within the company.
“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.”
Rather than follow the typical procedure for this situation, HR told Fowler that since it was the perpetrator’s first offense, he would be given a “stern talking-to” as they (wait for it) “didn’t want to ruin his career”.
Given the “choice” of staying on a team where her skills were crucial but would now likely be reviewed badly by her manager, or leaving to join another team, Fowler left. It was only months later she learned from other women at Uber that they too had experienced sexual harassment from this man – meaning his inappropriate comments towards Fowler were by no means his first offense.
In addition to ignoring repeated complaints of sexual harassment, Fowler was blocked from advancing within the company, refused transfers despite an exemplary work record and prevented from attending a company sponsored course at Stanford University. At one point, the six women remaining in Fowler’s department were even denied jackets provided to all the male employees on the grounds of “equality”.
“He [the director] said that because there were so many men in the org, they had gotten a significant discount on the men’s jackets but not on the women’s jackets, and it wouldn’t be equal or fair, he argued, to give the women leather jackets that cost a little more than the men’s jackets.”
When Fowler first joined Uber, women made up 25% of the organisation’s SREs. That number had dropped to 3% by the time she quit.
To his credit, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has announced an urgent investigation into company culture following Fowler’s allegations. Board member Arianna Huffington has even released her email so that those with information may contact her directly.
Just talked w/ Travis & as a representative of Uber's Board I will work w/Liane to conduct a full independent investigation starting now 1/2
— Arianna Huffington (@ariannahuff) February 20, 2017
Yet it is still uncomfortable to think of women being treated so chauvinistically in the region commonly considered to be the heart of humanity’s technological future.
For this is not the first time Silicon Valley has revealed a deep-seated culture of sexism. A 2016 study revealed that 60% of women working in Silicon Valley have experienced unwanted sexual advances, two-thirds of which were initiated by a superior. 75% of the study’s respondents said they were asked about their marital status and children during job interviews, and nearly half said they had been told to do menial tasks such as note-taking or ordering food. Yes. Women with 10 years’ experience working in tech are still being asked to get sandwiches.
Glass-ceilings, it appears, are still very much in vogue for Silicon Valley, and the problem is a complex one. Sexism within the industry could be addressed by reducing the gender gap, introducing quotas and encouraging more women into tech. But at the same time, how do we encourage more women into tech when sexism appears to be so rampant? Granted sexist attitudes and behaviour does not come solely from men either – women at times can be just as guilty of perpetuating sexism.
A novel approach to the issue is to attack the unconscious gender biases that can exist across all workplaces. SocialQ, a virtual reality application created by Annie Harper and the team at Wollongong-based company Devika, addresses these conscious biases by attempting to generate empathy. Many of the attitudes that lead to sexism are difficult for people to identify in themselves. SocialQ works by getting users to realise these attitudes, and experience what it’s like to be on the receiving end of them.
Whatever the solution, STEM careers are only set to grow in the coming years. The case of Uber reminds us that for women to feel safe in these industries, major improvements still need to be made.