Yesterday, engineer Susan Fowler Tweeted, "I wrote something up this weekend about my year at Uber, and why I left," with a link to an essay titled, "Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year At Uber"—which is a more succinct title than "I Was Repeatedly Sexually Harassed At Uber, As Were Other Female Engineers, And Even Though We Reported It, Uber Management Did Nothing To Stop It And Actually Tried To Mess With My Career Because I Was Upset About The Sexist Culture."
The allegations in Fowler's piece are so damning that Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, already reeling from the #DeleteUber outrage over his company's immigration ban reaction, went on the defensive offensive a few hours later:
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
Fowler joined Uber as a site reliability engineer in November 2015, and said, "[I]t was a great time to join as an engineer. 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 had chosen a new team after training, but then things got weird:
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.She ended up leaving the team, and eventually met other female engineers:
Uber was a pretty good-sized company at that time, and I had pretty standard expectations of how they would handle situations like this. I expected that I would report him to HR, they would handle the situation appropriately, and then life would go on - unfortunately, things played out quite a bit differently. When I reported the situation, 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. 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
I was then told that I had to make a choice: (i) I could either go and find another team and then never have to interact with this man again, or (ii) I could stay on the team, but I would have to understand that he would most likely give me a poor performance review when review time came around, and there was nothing they could do about that. I remarked that this didn't seem like much of a choice, and that I wanted to stay on the team because I had significant expertise in the exact project that the team was struggling to complete (it was genuinely in the company's best interest to have me on that team), but they told me the same thing again and again. One HR rep even explicitly told me that it wouldn't be retaliation if I received a negative review later because I had been "given an option". I tried to escalate the situation but got nowhere with either HR or with my own management chain (who continued to insist that they had given him a stern-talking to and didn't want to ruin his career over his "first offense").
As I got to know them, and heard their stories, I was surprised that some of them had stories similar to my own. Some of the women even had stories about reporting the exact same manager I had reported, and had reported inappropriate interactions with him long before I had even joined the company. 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". The situation was escalated as far up the chain as it could be escalated, and still nothing was done.Fowler says that she and her colleagues spoke to HR about it, but HR insisted he only had one offense and the company did nothing. "We all gave up on Uber HR and our managers after that," she wrote. "Eventually he 'left' the company. I don't know what he did that finally convinced them to fire him."
At one point, she sought to transfer to a "less chaotic" engineering operation, but her transfer was blocked for unknown reasons, in spite of her stellar performance reviews, because of a new "negative" review system. Fowler later found out, "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."
Fowler also detailed an insane bit of Silicon Valley swag drama, with the company offering to buy leather jackets for all site reliability engineers. Everyone found their sizes, placed orders—but then management announced only jackets were being ordered for the men, "because there were not enough women in the organization to justify placing an order." When she brought up how Uber could probably buy jackets for the six women engineers left, "The director replied back, saying that if we women really wanted equality, then we should realize we were getting equality by not getting the leather jackets. He 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 says she brought it up to HR, the (female) HR rep "asked me how often [female SREs] communicated, what we talked about, what email addresses we used to communicate, which chat rooms we frequented, etc. - an absurd and insulting request that I refused to comply with" and she ended up "berating me about keeping email records of things, and told me it was unprofessional to report things via email to HR."
Finally, after her manager implied that he would fire her because she reported the director (his boss) to HR, Fowler, who pointed out to her manager that his intimidation was illegal to which he insisted it wasn't, "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')."
So Fowler left to join Stripe, the card payment start-up. As CNET reported, "Much has been said about sexism and the lack of women in Silicon Valley. Women make up around 30 percent of the workforce at major tech companies, but take up only 15 percent of technical roles. In a 2016 survey of 200 women who had worked in Silicon Valley for over 10 years, 60 percent of respondents said they'd received unwanted sexual advances, 65 percent said those advances came from a superior and one of three said they were in fear for their personal safety." And by Fowler's estimation, the percentage of women site reliability engineers dropped from 25% to 3% when she left last year.
@susanthesquark I find no coincidence in the fact that 1 of most morally bankrupt people I’ve met went to recruit at uber and thrives there— Anthony Via Corrado (@ViaCorrado) February 19, 2017
@susanthesquark painful and humbling to read. I'm saddened that something I started turned into that, and that you experienced it.— Will Larson (@Lethain) February 19, 2017
Also, this can’t be stressed enough: What @susanthesquark did was incredibly brave, given the NDAs she certainly signed. She’s a true hero.— Felix Salmon (@felixsalmon) February 20, 2017
The key takeaway in @susanthesquark's post? She kept records of every incident. Every one. For a year. And talked to others with records— Mikki Kendall (@Karnythia) February 20, 2017
I gotta say the blatant disregard throughout management and hr even in the name of ass covering shocked me https://t.co/U9o2RFqxD1— Sarah Lacy (@sarahcuda) February 20, 2017
women in the valley: here's the upside. notice how many people are believing Susan. culture is changing. come forward. name and shame.— Sarah Lacy (@sarahcuda) February 19, 2017
Sarah Lacy, by the way, is the Pando Daily editor targeted by Uber executives, who bragged about being able to ruin her life.
Kalanick said he fully supports Ariana Huffington, who Tweeted:
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
You can email me directly: [email protected] 2/2— Arianna Huffington (@ariannahuff) February 20, 2017
Fowler has been receiving a lot of support:
My twitter and gmail apps are longer working thanks to all the messages! It will take me a while to reply to everyone but I will try!— Susan Fowler Rigetti (@susanthesquark) February 20, 2017
Of course, this is Silicon Valley, where a venture capitalist's "friendly" advice to women trying to make it in the tech world is use initials, not your first name, and remove your photo from LinkedIn.