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‘Handling of sexual harrassment allegations at Uber show we’ve a long way to go’

February 20, 2017 1:11 PM
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‘Handling of sexual harrassment allegations at Uber show we’ve a long way to go’

The account of a former Uber engineer who says she was propositioned by her manager highlight problems in male-dominated tech industry

To anyone who has worked – or still works – in the tech industry, the news that sexism is still a problem is not exactly a revelation.

Even still, the account from a former Uber engineer of how the company had dealt with allegations of sexual harassment by a manager should make for difficult reading.

Susan Fowler left Uber in December. According to her account, shortly after joining, she was propositioned by a manager over the company’s chat system. Taking screenshots, she reported the incident to the HR department and expected some action to be taken. According to Fowler, Uber’s HR department said it didn’t feel comfortable disciplining the manager – who was a “high performer” and no prior complaints – beyond a warning and a “stern talking to” for what was “probably an innocent mistake on his part”.

I sincerely hope she is paraphrasing. An innocent mistake is accidentally swiping someone’s pen from their desk, or perhaps picking up the wrong sandwich at lunch. It is not, and never would be, propositioning a colleague for sex.

Fowler said she later met other engineers who said they had raised similar complaints against the same manager, and no action had been taken. To top it all off, Fowler said she was told she could move to a different team or risk getting a poor performance review from the manager when the time came, and there was nothing HR could do about it.

Where do you even start with this? Something many good HR people will already know: this kind of situation is exactly what you are there for. To investigate complaints, to safeguard employees, and to make sure that if someone is harassing your staff, even if they have an exemplary performance record, appropriate action is taken where the complaints are proven.

Fowler’s account of how her complaints were dealt with by Uber’s human resources department and management should make you angry, regardless of your sex. This isn’t an outrage that should be felt solely by women, although we have every right to screaming blue murder about every incident like this.

Chief executive Travis Kalanick has promised action and promised an internal investigation to look into the allegations. He described them as “abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for and believes in”.

“We seek to make Uber a just workplace and there can be absolutely no place for this kind of behaviour at Uber – and anyone who behaves this way or thinks this is OK will be fired,” he said.

This is the same Kalanick, by the way, who referred to “Boober” in a GQ profile a few years ago – a reference to what he called “women on demand”. Uber is also the same company that has been guilty of misogyny, sexism and being a little bit creepy for incidents that include an executive hinting at a smear campaign against a female journalist, and demonstrating a “God view” of its service at a party that allegedly showed personal details of Uber customers.

Not to mention a French campaign that crossed the boundaries of taste by offering customers the chance to be picked up by beautiful women.

Fowler eventually left and took up a position with Stripe, the payments company founded by Limerick brothers Patrick and John Collison.

In a way, she is one of the lucky ones, although I’d hesitate to use that word to describe her situation. Not only did she have a way out, but she was also able to make her voice heard. There are plenty of women working in tech that do not have the same options.

When it comes to diversity, the tech industry, despite its efforts, does not score well. There are fewer women working in IT than men – women make up an average of 30 per cent of the workforce in tech industry businesses, according to figures extrapolated from the reports of the big tech firms – and when it comes to higher level positions, that ratio becomes worse. This is all well documented, and there has been much debate and hand-wringing about how it can be solved.

The tech industry is dominated by men, and will be for some time, despite the rise of some high-profile women executives. There have been efforts to redress the balance, and a general problem with diversity, with companies putting in place policies and procedures that will make them more attractive.

Dropbox, for example, brought in Judith Williams – formerly of Google – to help it address unconscious bias. Others have concentrated on family-friendly policies and flexible working to attract workers.

It’s easy to demonise the tech industry for its record on women, but it is by no means the only offender.

Despite frequent cried of “we don’t need feminism” and “women already have equality”, accounts such as this are still far too frequent to declare the job is done. We have a long way to go yet.


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