Reflecting on Susan Fowler’s Reflections

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

In the last 24 hours, pretty much everyone in Silicon Valley has read Susan Fowler’s story. If you haven’t, you should. Her story, and others like it, are the inconvenient truth of the tech industry.

As a female engineer, specifically a female engineer at Uber, and specifically specifically a vocal female engineer at Uber who spends about 20% of her time working on improving diversity and inclusion, I have made myself a beacon for conversations about this sort of issue.

So it was hardly a surprise when people started reaching out to me about this incident yesterday afternoon. In the last 24 hours over 30 people have messaged me, tagged me in Facebook posts, or reached out to me in person looking for opinions, advice, answers, help, or simply asking me if I’m okay. I apologize for ignoring your messages, and so this post is my hopefully-satisfying response to all of your questions.

  1. Have I seen this article?

Yes! I have seen this article, and I am *thrilled* at how many other people did too. I mean this seriously. I hate that this is what it took to get everyone’s attention, but I’m glad that we have it now. Everyone is aware that there is a sexism problem in technology, but we forget just how extreme, frustrating, and severe it can be until we see it happen in our backyard. We like to think of our own companies as bubbles that exist outside of the “reality” of the tech world, but Susan’s story reminds us that no one is immune, even if we don’t see the problems firsthand. Susan’s article is the top post on Hacker News today, and that means that people are finally listening.

2. What do I think?

I think this is disgusting and appalling and horrifying and yet I am not surprised at all. In fact, I’m most surprised at how surprised everyone else seems to be. I have been shouting about this for years now — and the world at large has been for far longer — and yet people are still surprised when this sort of thing happens. If the world, and Uber specifically, takes one thing away from this, it should be that this is not an isolated incident. Sexism is a systemic issue, just like any other ism, and it can’t be solved by firing the handful of HR reps that were directly involved.

This incident is not isolated to Susan Fowler, SREs, or even Uber. This is everyone’s problem.

If people only take from this the fact that Uber’s HR department needs work, and the managers are assholes, and Uber needs to release its diversity statistics, then we are missing the point.

Sexism is a problem everywhere. In politics, in publishing, in academia. If this is a wake-up call for HR, for SREs, and for Uber, then that’s wonderful. But it needs to be more. It needs to be a wake-up call for everyone.

3. Is this what it’s really like being a woman in tech?

The short answer is not at all and the long answer is hell yes.

First, the short answer.

No, this is not what my day to day is like. I have wonderful managers who support me spending 20% of my time working on diversity and inclusion, I have teammates who frequently ask “What can I do?” when I talk about sexism in the workplace, and I have seen so many people at Uber make huge strides in their understanding of topics like unconscious bias and privilege, and I have never once been propositioned for sex by anyone, especially not anyone in my chain of management, at Uber.

However.

I am in the 60%.

60% of women have been sexually harassed in Silicon Valley, and I am one of those people.

My very first internship was at Google. I was 20 years old, which I remember because I was not old enough yet to drink. None of my friends were, actually. I remember that too, because we had to be sneaky about how we were going to get our alcohol.

We were a group of about fifteen 20-year-olds, largely female, throwing a party in San Jose, and a friend’s manager, about 30 years old, decided to come.

He drove down from the city, brought a bottle of absinthe, and proceeded to follow me into my bedroom where he wanted to “play Go”. I forced us out into the common room, where he told me that I “looked nice. Very summery” while he started drinking absinthe. It wasn’t long before he was the drunkest person at the party, following me around and saying things like “weed smells like Aimee, but less beautiful.”

At the time, we thought it was hilarious. In fact, we thought this was so funny that we spent weeks joking about it. Eventually, the head of our program heard our jokes and reported the incident to HR. We spent a week telling our story, and ultimately the guy was told he could no longer be an intern manager.

I no longer think this is funny.

I think this is disgusting and appalling and horrifying, and this happened at a company that is much loved and respected in Silicon Valley.

I say this not to throw Google under the bus; I really don’t want to start an investigation and I left things intentionally vague so that we can focus on the fact that this happens everywhere and not on the fact that this happened specifically to me at one specific company.

And this brings me to the next question that people have asked me in the last 24 hours.

4. Why am I still at Uber?

I am at Uber because Uber needs me.

Like it or not, Uber is going to be an important company and I’d rather it reach its potential with smart, empathetic, diverse people at the helm than that I walk out today and wash my hands of it.

It’s infuriating that something like what happened to Susan can go undetected for so long, and it makes me queasy that this is just the tip of the iceberg. There was a (very large) part of me that didn’t want to get up and go to work this morning. In fact, I left early so I could process everything that’s been going on, and also write this blog post.

But when I most feel like quitting is when Uber most needs me.

Uber doesn’t always realize it, or appreciate it, but I have made a difference. I’ve seen it. One of the senior product managers in the driver org told me the other day that he hadn’t heard of unconscious bias before he met me. I advise women at the company on how to deal with their managers, how to ask for promotions, or even just to complain about how we feel unheard. I lead diversity & inclusion programs in driver, I am deeply involved in community outreach for LadyEng, and I’m speaking at our all-female technology conference in March.

None of this would have happened if I had walked out.

Furthermore, I am pleased with how quickly Travis has responded to this. We are better situated to handle this sort of problem than we have ever been in the past, and I have high hopes for our new heads of diversity and HR.

Finally, today Travis announced that Uber will be releasing our diversity numbers, and while I hate that it took something like this to get such top-level attention, but I’m glad it’s finally happening.

Thank you Susan, for finally getting through to people in a way that we have been trying to for so long. I know we didn’t know each other when you worked here, but I think we would have been friends. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Finally…

5. What can I do?

Spread Susan’s story.

Ask your out-of-center friends to hear their stories.

Listen to those stories.

Recognize your unconscious bias.

Take unconscious bias training.

Be an active ally.

When you see something, say something.

Recognize that while sexism is sometime the most obvious ism in Silicon Valley, it is far from the only one.

And most importantly, don’t let yourself think that this is solely Uber’s problem. Without a doubt, this is a bad situation, and Uber has a lot to clean up. But this was a problem last week, and no matter how much we shouted about it, no one was listening.

As you’re sitting there, reading this post, thanking your lucky stars that your company isn’t like this, remember that the contents of Susan’s post were surprising specifically because Uber employees didn’t think that it was a problem.

On some level, we realize sexism exists. We realize racism, agism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc etc etc exists, but until it hits in our backyard, it’s hard to internalize it.

So while this is fresh, while we are hurting, while we are outraged, take a look at the things we take for granted and think about what we may be surprised by tomorrow.