“Sexual Harassment Doesn’t Happen at My Company”

The following post is entirely my personal opinion and should not reflect on Uber at large.

“Sexual harassment and microaggressions are not systemic problems for the tech industry. They don’t happen to the women at my company. Diversity is also not systemic because I see a lot of women at my company.”

By: an ex-coworker

Some people still deny that sexual harassment, microaggressions and diversity are systemic problems for women in the tech industry. In particular, I’ve noticed a big discrepancy between men’s responses and women’s responses when it comes to acknowledging that sexual harassment is systemic. While I haven’t encountered any women denying this, many men have. Additionally, a disproportionate number of men are suspicious of the authenticity of particular incidents when they read news articles about them.

I’ve been questioning why there’s a noticeable difference between men’s and women’s attitudes about this topic. In understanding the discrepancy, we’ll end up with a better understanding of the facts, and find a clearer path forward. I’d like to call attention to this discrepancy and clarify some of the misconceptions surrounding sexual harassment, so that together we can raise awareness and help make the workplace more just and safe for everyone.

Defining and Recognizing Sexual Harassment

First, let’s get on the same page defining what constitutes sexual harassment. Without being aware of the complete definition, many offending cases are overlooked, given that there is a wide scope of actions that are sexual harassment.

Definition: Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that tends to create a hostile or offensive work environment.

I see people holding the following assumptions regarding harassment at their workplaces:

  • If sexual harassment were truly pervasive, I would see and hear about lots of instances of it around me.
  • Because I’m a good person, I would report anything obvious if I see it.
  • An affected individual would report an incident if it seemed serious enough.

People overlook the following:

  • Many cases are unreported.
  • People are reluctant to admit to problems in their own backyards.

It’s easy to ignore seemingly minor incidents which are below a threshold. Another factor could be a lack of personal experience. While most men may not have experienced sexual harassment or unwanted physical advances, almost all women have experienced them throughout their lives. (In fact, in a recent study 60% of the women said they had experienced sexual harassment.)

My Experiences with Sexual Harassment in the Tech Industry

I was surprised to hear my ex-coworker claimed that sexual harassment doesn’t happen to the women at the companies he has worked at, because he hasn’t seen it. Just because you don’t see sexual harassment doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

Too few people have asked their female coworkers about their experiences with sexual harassment before jumping into the conclusion that sexual harassment is not systemic. Without asking other women coworkers about it, how would you know? Do you think women at your company would just go tell everyone about sexual harassment they’ve encountered throughout their lives? As a woman in question, I can tell you that the answer is no. This is not a topic women like to talk about with their coworkers, friends or family. These encounters are not something pleasant that we want to reminisce on. On the contrary, they are bad memories we want to put behind us. In fact, we rarely talk about them with others unless we are asked specifically about this topic by someone we feel comfortable with, or unless someone else started talking about their experience first, and we then think that telling our stories can help others.

The recent Susan Fowler blog post made me reflect on Uber’s company culture, my experience as a woman at Uber, and especially my experience as a woman in tech in general.

I want to note that this is not specifically targeted at Uber, where I currently work; many of these experiences happened to me outside of Uber. Sexual harassment is an issue across the board in tech, and I want to talk about it from this context. I do not mean to focus on particular companies and hence leaving where the incident occurred out of context.

My First Encounter…Right Before My First Job

My first encounter with sexual harassment at the workplace happened while searching for my first job fresh out of college. It was on an evening dinner/dance with the marketing group of a well-known hardware company, after interviewing with them earlier that day. On the dance floor, my would-be hiring manager, who I knew was a married man with an infant son, said to me in his half drunken state with misty eyes, “Apple, kiss me!” I freaked out. I didn’t know how to respond to it except pretending that I didn’t hear it, and I made an excuse to leave quickly. I rejected the job offer the next day, something I am glad I did. But what I didn’t do is report the incident to the recruiter or HR. I wish I had heard about sexual harassment and knew how to handle such a situation before I started my job search, so that I wouldn’t have felt so unprepared, scared and ultimately scarred by the experience.

My Next Encounter, Early in My Career

Fast-forward to my first job, when the guy in the adjacent department had a crush on me. My coworkers found out after hearing that he asked his coworker to ask me to go to the company party as his date. My coworkers teased me about him, making me feel very uncomfortable around him. My manager overheard that I was uncomfortable and took me aside. With a very serious and genuine look of concern on his face, he asked me, “Apple, is he harassing you? If so, let’s talk with HR about this!” “Oh, no!” I told him. I felt touched by how genuinely concerned he was.

Though this is not a case of sexual harassment, it warmed my heart to know that my manager was supportive, and that I could count on him if it ever happened to me. His concern set the tone for me on how seriously sexual harassment should be treated, and on how to handle it from a manager’s perspective. It’s very reassuring to know that your manager cares about you and supports you during those circumstances when you feel the most vulnerable. The joking stopped because our manager’s serious reaction made everyone realize that my situation, which could easily cross into sexual harassment, was not something to joke about.

More Recent Mid-Career Examples

My next close encounter with sexual harassment was at what’s known as one of the best companies in the valley. It started very innocently from a male engineer in another department, whom I’d never met, asking me questions about my design doc. Being the friendly person I am, I wanted to be helpful to him for all his questions so I was responsive to his IMs. After a couple days of IMs, he suddenly asked me in one chat, “Are you single?”, “Do you live alone?”, “Are you into open relationships?”.

The series of increasingly personal questions made me feel very uncomfortable and lost for words, as I could see where this was leading. Noticing my long pause, he then asked, “Are you shy?” I was very shocked by these questions because in my idealistic mind, I’d always thought only the very best and brightest could make it to this company. Somehow I equated that with being respectful and professional. It taught me the tough lesson that intelligence doesn’t equate to awareness and sensitivity. I finally responded, “Your questions are making me very uncomfortable. You know they are not safe for work. Next time I will report them to HR.” He then apologized, saying that he was just trying to get to know me. I pointed out to him that I was upfront in expressing disinterest. I asked him if there was something I had said or did that had given him the impression I was interested. He couldn’t come up with an answer other than repeating that he was just trying to get to know me.

My heart softened after seeing that he was apologetic. I wasn’t sure what the consequences would be for him were I to report the incident to HR. I didn’t want him fired, but I would have liked this incident to be on his record, to protect other women. I was also trying to give him the benefit of the doubt. Was this guy just clueless around women? Did he misinterpret my friendliness as an invitation? Thinking back, I should have trusted that HR would handle things appropriately, and reported it nonetheless. I still have this lingering feeling that I didn’t fully do my part. Given that he was the more junior employee and I the more senior in this situation, I also wonder how the interaction might have been different had our roles been swapped. Had he been in a position of power, I can imagine him making bolder sexual requests or advances toward women engineers on his team and abusing his position of power.

My latest encounters with sexual harassment were at a company event. While I was watching a performance on stage, I felt a pair of hands on my waist. I felt violated and disgusted by the unwanted physical advance. Maybe it was due to my non-confrontational nature, or that I felt ashamed and embarrassed, I didn’t want to turn around and face the offender. Instead, I quietly threw his hands away. I was relieved, sensing the offender behind me quietly slip away.

I shook my head and took a deep breath, reminding myself not to be bothered by this. I wanted to enjoy the performance and put this behind me. But before I’d even had the chance to forget about the first incident, I felt another pair of hands on my waist. This second encounter proved to be too much for me to bear within the same night. This time I wanted to face the perpetrator, look him directly in the eye, and warn him off. I grabbed his hands so he couldn’t get away, spun around, and gave him a direct look as I demanded, “Who are you? What is your name?!” He seemed a bit taken aback by how upset I was. He said he didn’t mean it and blurted out his name. To my surprise, I didn’t feel ashamed this time. On the contrary, I felt empowered that I had shown him that this kind of behavior is unacceptable towards women, and that we were not going to put up with this quietly. Nonetheless, I completely lost my interest in the performance after that. All I wanted was to find other teammates at the event so I could feel safe.

I wanted to report him that night. I looked him up at the company directory later that night and couldn’t find him. He probably gave me a phony name, or I might’ve heard it wrong. Unfortunately, we were only wearing wristbands at the event. Without his name, I didn’t feel I had sufficient information to report.

I put all this behind me, thinking that it’s one or two of many unfortunate incidents that many women would’ve run into throughout their lives. The only unexpected element for me is that those encounters didn’t happen on public buses, or in crowded nightclubs with strangers. They happened at company events, with other coworkers, places where I should feel safe and be able to let my guard down.

More than a year passed. One day at a company meeting, another woman mentioned that her group of women engineers were being groped at the same event. That made me realize how widespread this was. I had always thought of my experiences as isolated incidents, and didn’t feel like they were worth mentioning. And I wonder how many women engineers encountered the same unwanted physical advances that night and didn’t speak up for the same reason I didn’t speak up.

Thinking back, although I didn’t get any names, I should’ve emailed the affiliated groups to warn them to better protect themselves, and informed HR so that they had more data and more information about what had occurred. If the company had gotten enough reports for that event, maybe it would have initiated an investigation on this which would have helped prevent it from happening again. I shudder to think about what the women who actually work with these men might have to go through on a daily basis.

Sexual Harassment is Underreported and Under -Discussed

Most of my friends and coworkers had no ideas about these incidents until now. To underscore its elusiveness in the public eye, I’ve never witnessed sexual harassment occurring against others, except for one time after the fact. I happened to run into a junior woman engineer from my team while she was still in shock after someone had made unwelcome physical advances on her. I could tell something was wrong by how shocked and distressed she looked. By the time I saw her, the perpetrator had already left. After finding out what had happened to her, I took her by the hand and made sure that she was with me for the rest of that night so that I could protect her. Needless to say, her case was also not reported due to lack of information.

Sexual harassment is not an enjoyable topic. We do not frequently discuss it with our coworkers or even our close friends. For the most part, we stay silent about it. All of my encounters were not reported for various reasons which makes me wonder how many unreported incidents are out there.

Aside from one or two close friends, the only people who knew about all these situations I encountered, until today, were me and the men who harassed me. If you don’t think sexual harassment exists at your company, it’s not because it’s not there, it’s because you aren’t paying attention.

We should start from the place of understanding and helpful instead of being cynical, disbelieving, or judgmental. Before we can work together to eliminate injustices in the workplace, we all need to first acknowledge that sexual harassment is a problem. Sexual harassment is pervasive and universal for women, even and especially in the workplace.

So, based on my experiences, what can we do to minimize sexual harassment in tech and its pervasiveness?

What are Actionable Ways to Cope With and Reduce Sexual Harassment?

For women:

  • Be brave and be strong. Don’t blame yourself, don’t feel ashamed. You deserve neither.
  • Report every single harassment, no matter how small they are. Do not stay silent.
  • Report any offender to HR or to any affiliated group. Any information or awareness is better than none.
  • Share your experiences and educate others about them.
  • Help others who don’t know how to fend for themselves or deal with the situation.

For men:

  • Educate yourself and others about sexual harassment.
  • Acknowledge that sexual harassment is systemic and push for change. Denying it only allows it to continue. To gain trust, the conversation must start from a place of understanding and acceptance, not denial and assumptions.
  • Be sensitive and respectful to your female coworkers. Know what’s appropriate and what is not.
  • Pay attention to how you act and what you say, and how others act and what they say.
  • Be an ally for your female coworkers
  • Get to know your coworkers, talk to them, encourage them to report those incidents
  • Harassment also can happen to men and it’s just as serious

For Managers:

  • Educate the team and take a strong stand on sexual harassment.
  • Be supportive when this happens to your reportee. Encourage and assist in reporting the incident to the HR department, and help with the follow through.
  • Pay attention to the buzz in the hallways, be aware of what’s happening to your employees. When you hear something suspicious, get to the bottom of it and take action.
  • Make the chain of escalation clear, and show people that they have someone to go to.
  • Make any possible consequences clear, provide examples on how typical sexual harassment cases are handled.

For HR:

  • Provide some transparency on how sexual harassment is handled
  • Educate employees on what’s appropriate and what is not
  • Provide resources and a safe place for employees to report incidents
  • Make it clear that it’s ok to submit reports even when there isn’t sufficient information.

For Everyone:

  • For all of us, if we happen to witness any incidents, stop them and report them
  • Help and protect those who need our help.