Uber’s Rampant Sexism And Misogyny
I see my favorite company is in the news again this weekend, this time, for treating its actual employees as badly as it treats its “contractors.” Susan Fowler has written a piece on her one-year stint at Uber and the details are shocking yet unsurprising for a company that feels it is not constrained by any laws.
Fowler was an engineer hired by Uber in November of 2015. After a few weeks of initial training, Fowler eventually joined the Uber team in her area of expertise. On her very first day at that position, Fowler was essentially propositioned by her manager.
“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.”
Fowler assumed that, since Uber was a fairly large company, it would have a normal HR department. But, this is Uber. Fowler continues:
“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.”
Even worse, Fowler was told that she could either stay in that group or get transferred to another team within Uber. In an additional slap in the face, HR advised her that the poor review would not be considered retaliation because she should have opted to stay on that team.
“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’.”
Needless to say, Fowler left that team and joined another where she could work fairly autonomously and she succeeded in that position. But, her interactions with other female engineers at Uber led her to discover that her harasser had engaged in similar inappropriate behavior with others many times.
Uber’s management and HR had blatantly lied about her incident being his first offense. Fowler explains:
“Myself and a few of the women who had reported him in the past decided to all schedule meetings with HR to insist that something be done. In my meeting, the rep I spoke with told me that he had never been reported before, he had only ever committed one offense (in his chats with me), and that none of the other women who they met with had anything bad to say about him, so no further action could or would be taken. It was such a blatant lie that there was really nothing I could do. There was nothing any of us could do.”
Fowler describes, in another anecdote, just how poorly the women engineers at Uber were treated. The company promised leather jackets for Fowler’s entire engineering group. Uber then brought in all the engineers to get fitted and choose the jackets they would want. Subsequently, the six female engineers received an email from management telling them that they would not be getting their leather jackets because it was not cost effective. According to Fowler:
“I replied and said that I was sure Uber SRE could find room in their budget to buy leather jackets for the, what, six women if it could afford to buy them for over a hundred and twenty men. 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.
We were told that if we wanted leather jackets, we women needed to find jackets that were the same price as the bulk-order price of the men’s jackets.”
The pettiness is truly shocking.
The last straw for Fowler came when more of her complaints to HR were met with outright and easily provable falsehoods. That led to a one-on-one meeting with her manager. Fowler again:
“He told me I was on very thin ice for reporting his manager to HR. California is an at-will employment state, he said, which means we can fire you if you ever do this again. 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’).”
She thankfully left Uber in December, 2016, having been there just over one year. It is hard to imagine all that she endured only occurred in the course of 13 months. Please read her whole piece. It is shocking and disgusting, but probably far more typical than one imagines in corporate America today. It is, most certainly, typical of Uber’s unethical and lawless behavior in every way.
In many ways, the sexism and misogyny on display in Uber is reflected in our wider society. There is no doubt that it was a significant factor in Hillary Clinton’s defeat. And those destructive attitudes will never be erased or even minimized if they are normalized in our corporate culture. What Fowler was forced to endure at Uber, a large multinational American based company, shows just how far we still have to go.
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