It wasn’t that the proportion of female engineers plummeted from 25% to 3% in under a year, nor was it Susan Fowler’s request for action or her resignation.
It was a long blog post ‘Reflecting on One Very Very Strange Year at Uber‘ that finally garnered a company response to the sexual harassment one female engineer encountered, witnessed and sought to address at the tech giant.
The post went viral and a hashtag #DeleteUber quickly followed.
The company’s response to the post was unlike its response to the complaints: it was swift and unequivocal. The CEO Travis Kalanick was quick to take a stand.
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
Unfortunately, the timing is telling.
As Fowler examined in detail in her post, when the sexual harassment was happening behind closed doors, away from the eyes of the outside world, responding wasn’t urgent.
In fact, to the contrary, her attempts for any response were ignored. Her story is likely to resonate with many women the world over. Whether they are in tech, law, banking, academia, medicine – the field is irrelevant – Fowler’s experience will be familiar to working women everywhere.
“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.”
Predictably, the harassment was easily forgiven, unlike Fowler’s decision to report it. He was a “high performing” colleague who made an “innocent mistake”, even though she later learned his “innocent mistake” was routine, something he had subject several female colleagues to. Several colleagues who also reported it to HR, who were also told, it was his first offence.
Fowler remained at the company for 13 months, during which time she had requests for transfer denied on the basis of “undocumented” performance issues, despite the fact her documented performance reviews were glowing.
She routinely reported instances of sexual harassment and sexism to HR and she was routinely ignored. Until these reports were turned on her.
“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).”
She was then threatened with losing her job for reporting matters to HR.
” I told him that was illegal, and he replied that he had been a manager for a long time, he knew what was illegal, and threatening to fire me for reporting things to HR was not illegal. I reported his threat immediately after the meeting to both HR and to the CTO: they 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”).”
Eventually she left. Fowler is a bestselling author, gainfully employed at Stripe and a regular speaker at major tech events. To describe her professional achievements to date as significant is an understatement.
Her blog post has now achieved what her concerted efforts inside Uber couldn’t: the company is embarking on an investigation into sexual harassment. This review is being described as “urgent” but it’s been anything but. If Uber had been serious about tackling sexual harassment this review would have happened a few years ago when reports of inappropriate conduct were first made to HR. “High performers” wouldn’t have been protected and engineers like Fowler wouldn’t have been punished.
The ugly truth is sexual harassment is only being investigated at Uber because it was revealed to the outside world. It seems that users doing exactly as the #DeleteHashtag suggested and removing the app is what sprung the business into action.
Hopefully it might be the start of positive change but Fowler’s words make clear, the situation is dismal and the task ahead monumental.