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Uber has once again come under fire after a former engineer published a blog post alleging widespread sexism and harrassment during her year at the on-demand ride hailing service. On Saturday, Susan Fowler wrote about her experience having claims of sexual harassment by managers repeatedly dismissed by the company, often with the excuse that her bosses were “high performing.”
Within hours, Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick issued a statement in response and tweeted that he has ordered Uber’s new human resources chief, Liane Hornsey, to conduct an “urgent investigation” and that any perpetrators will be fired. Of note, previous HR head Renee Atwood left in 2016 after joining in 2014.
1/ What's described here is abhorrent & against everything we believe in. Anyone who behaves this way or thinks this is OK will be fired. https://t.co/6q29N7AL6E
— travis kalanick (@travisk) February 20, 2017
2/ I've instructed our CHRO Liane to conduct an urgent investigation. There can be absolutely no place for this kind of behavior at Uber.
— travis kalanick (@travisk) February 20, 2017
In November 2015, Fowler joined the company as a site reliability engineer (SRE) and was optimistic about her role there. “They were still wrangling microservices out of their monolithic API, and things were just chaotic enough that there was exciting reliability work to be done,” she wrote. But soon after emerging from training, her manager, whom she declined to name, messaged her with some inappropriate conversation.
According to her blog post, Fowler reported the manager to human resources, but was told that “even though this was clearly sexual harassment…it was this man’s first offense, and that [Uber] wouldn’t feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to.” What’s more, she claimed upper management told her “he ‘was a high performer’…and they wouldn’t feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake on his part.”
She goes on to mention additional accounts from coworkers she spoke with, all with the same response from HR and upper management. Fowler highlighted this part, which paints a very bad picture of women’s treatment at Uber:
When I joined Uber, the organization I was part of was over 25% women. By the time I was trying to transfer to another [engineering] organization, this number had dropped down to less than 6%. Women were transferring out of the organization, and those who couldn’t transfer were quitting or preparing to quit. There were two major reasons for this: there was the organizational chaos, and there was also the sexism within the organization. When I asked our director at an org all-hands about what was being done about the dwindling numbers of women in the org compared to the rest of the company, his reply was, in a nutshell, that the women of Uber just needed to step up and be better engineers.
This incident and possibly others like it have given Uber another black eye and attention the company doesn’t need right now, especially coming weeks after Kalanick’s placement on Trump’s economic advisory board and the #DeleteUber campaign. The pressure brought to bear in that instance resulted in 200,000 people reportedly deleting their account before Kalanick removed himself from the president’s group.
But Uber isn’t the only company that has faced criticism over its treatment of female employees and likely won’t be the last. Technology companies have been working for years to improve diversity in the workplace, including bringing more minorities and women into engineering roles and management positions. However, doing so won’t eradicate sexual harassment, so companies also need to do more to root it from their culture and ensure that all employees feel safe in the workplace.
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
Kalanick’s statement seems to suggest he did not know about Fowler’s allegations or the behavior within his company. But it’s certainly worth paying attention to see what changes are brought to bear and whether they’ll have a positive impact.
As for Fowler, she left Uber in December and has since joined Stripe as an engineer.
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