Learn from Uber’s Mistakes and Stop Gaslighting Women In Tech

As you may have heard, software engineer, tech blogger, and former Uber employee Susan J. Fowler recently came forward and shared her story about the gross mistreatment she experienced from senior leaders and HR at Uber. Before I go any further, I want to acknowledge the bravery Susan took in sharing her story so publicly and thank her for shining a light on such a pervasive issue despite it being so personal. Stories like this are critical to discussions of diversity & inclusion in tech because we usually hear about the state of tech from the perspective of company PR departments which are inherently biased.

I’m happy to see that most of the comments Susan has received are supportive and positive, but I fear that will not remain the case. A critical concept from the sexual violence advocacy community is the importance of trusting and vocalizing your support for survivors of abuse, harassment, and assault. This is a message that many people embrace (though not nearly enough) but surprisingly, hasn’t quite translated to the Tech community. Even if you haven’t personally experienced harassment at Uber, you need to trust that this account is true and share that within your circles.

I have never worked for Uber and do not have any personal insight into the company, but I have worked for other tech companies and attend a lot of diversity in tech discussions groups so I know stories like these are not unique to Uber. Uber is an easy target because people are looking for reasons to #deleteUber, but uninstalling the Uber app does nothing to improve diversity in tech.

Elephant in the Valley’s survey revealed that 60% of women with 10 years of experience in tech experienced unwanted sexual advances, 60% of those who reported sexual harassment were dissatisfied with the course of action, and 29% of those who reported sexual harassment signed a non-disparagement agreement and therefore were denied the option to publicly share their stories. If you want firsthand accounts look no further than Lean Out or talk to almost any woman in tech.


Amazon and Apple

When the infamous Amazon New York Times article happened, it was common practice at the company to explain it away by reassuring potential employees or friends that the environment described in the article didn’t apply to X office or Y team. I was guilty of this too. I witnessed a similar denial of experiences, when a recent Apple email leak revealed sexism at Apple. A colleague of mine who had recently transferred from Apple described in depth how the stories didn’t align with her personal experience and how she thought the accounts were exaggerated.

On some level, overwhelming company pride should be applauded. It’s great to share that you love your company and are excited to have others join, but there’s a fine line between talking about how positive your team’s culture is and gaslighting the people sharing their lived experiences. I understand the impulse, especially if you are a woman at a company shamed for harassment to share your positive experiences. Unfortunately stories like this will prevent underrepresented minorities in tech from applying, but will not impact overall hiring. (More and more white men graduate college every day.) But it’s important to preface positive stories about your company by acknowledging that you believe the narrative presented is true even if it differs from your experience.

Whenever you deny the experiences of someone who has chosen to report, people who are nervous about reporting or worried how their stories will be perceived are listening and will realize they cannot trust you.

How should we react?

Months after the New York Times article, Amazon announced a change to their performance review system to promote strengths over weaknesses, but unfortunately the company has yet to address the gender diversity concerns buried in the original article . Apple may have internally made improvements, but none that have been publicized outside the company .

What will Uber do? We can hope it inspires radical culture change, but sadly that has not been the case in other places.

If you are a member of the tech industry, the most important thing you can do is reach out to people affected by diversity & harassment issues at work. Listen to their stories and work with them to improve your workplace. Women cannot solve gender issues in tech alone, people of color cannot solve race issues in tech alone.

  1. Show up to diversity in tech events and join diversity in tech listservs (if you are welcome) but listen more than you talk and research the issues before you request that someone explain a concept like unconscious bias to you.
  2. Volunteer to do some of the event planning, hang posters, or order food so the people most affected by these topics can continue excelling at their jobs and not be overburdened with extra work.
  3. Mentor underrepresented minorities in tech. Often members of these groups are expected to mentor younger employees at a much higher rate than the rest of the company.
  4. Look into your company’s HR policies. Are HR employees accessible? Are skip-level meetings accessible? Does your company have a culture of shaming people who report things to HR? Speak up for improved HR policies. As Susan’s story highlights, HR and access to senior leaders can make or break these tough issues.

While today it’s easy to cast a stone against Uber, your company may be the next Diversity in Tech target and no amount of company pride will save the stories from reaching an audience. Work with underrepresented groups today to ensure that they are heard and help transform your company from within to prevent the bad experiences themselves, instead of preventing another PR disaster. In the meantime, stand up for survivors and trust them.