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Uber hires ex-Attorney General to probe sexism claims

February 21, 2017 10:58 AM
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CEO Travis Kalanick promises a diversity report within the next few months

Uber has enlisted the help of a former US Attorney General to investigate claims of sexism made against the company by a former employee.

Eric Holder, who held the office under President Barack Obama, will conduct a review of the complaints made by Susan Fowler, a former Uber engineer who alleged she had been the victim of sexual harassment by her manager, amid a string of accusations painting a picture of widespread sexism at the taxi app firm.

Claims range from female engineers being denied leather jackets because there weren't enough engineers to justify the spend, to her request to move teams being denied because a manager wanted to keep women on his team.

Holder, who Airbnb hired last year to help create new anti-discrimination policies for its online room sharing platform, will be joined by Tammy Albarran, his partner at Covington & Burling law firm, according to an internal staff memo by Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, seen by Reuters.

"Every Uber employee should be proud of the culture we have and what we will build together over time," said Kalanick in the memo. "It is my number one priority that we come through this a better organisation, where we live our values and fight for and support those who experience injustice."

Uber board member Arianna Huffington, chief human resources officer Liane Hornsey, and associate general counsel Angela Padilla will also help with the investigation, which will additionally assess diversity and culture at Uber.

Kalanick also revealed to staff that Uber will release its first diversity report within the next few months. The memo highlighted that 15.1% of employees at Uber are women, compared to the 18% at Google, 17% at Facebook, and 10% at Twitter.

In her blog post revealing the allegations, Fowler maintains that when she left Uber in December 2016, just 3% of 150 engineers in her division were female.

Kalanick has called the allegations "abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for and believes in".

Uber has been accused of systemic sexism by a former employee, who alleged that sexual harassment claims were repeatedly buried by the company's human resources department.

The claims were made by ex-Uber engineer Susan Fowler, who worked in the company's site reliability engineering department from November 2015 to December 2016. She published a blog post on Sunday detailing a laundry list of troubling accusations against the company.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick described the content of the claims as "abhorrent" and has ordered an urgent investigation.

One of Fowler's main claims centres around her first manager, who allegedly propositioned Fowler on her first day of working on his team. According to Fowler, when she reported him to HR for sexual harassment, she was told that it was his first offence.

That, combined with the fact that he "had stellar performance reviews from his superiors", meant that no action was taken against him, Fowler said. Instead, Fowler was forced to either switch to a team that she was less suited to or to stay on the team and accept that the manager in question would likely give her a poor performance review.

"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'. I tried to escalate the situation but got nowhere with either HR or with my own management chain," she wrote.

However, after talking with female colleagues, Fowler said she discovered that multiple women had lodged HR complaints against this manager, all of whom were told that he'd never had any incidents in the past.

"It became obvious that both HR and management had been lying about this being 'his first offense', and it certainly wasn't his last," she wrote. "The situation was escalated as far up the chain as it could be escalated, and still nothing was done."

This was far from the only example of workplace sexism detailed by Fowler. For instance, after promising leather jackets for all employees in the division, Uber reportedly informed female staff that they would not be receiving any because "there were not enough women in the organization to justify placing an order".

Eventually, the situation got so bad that Fowler decided to transfer to a different engineering organisation within Uber, but despite saying she met all the relevant criteria and having a "perfect performance score", she found her transfer blocked.

Senior managers within the company said that her transfer was denied due to "undocumented performance problems", but Fowler claims the real reason is that having a female engineer on the team made her manager look good.

In order to keep her on the team, she said, one of her performance reviews was retroactively downgraded - which meant that she was also no longer eligible for an Uber-sponsored position on a Stanford computer science program she was enrolled in.

After keeping extensive records of sexist incidents and filing numerous reports with the company's HR department, Fowler claims she was summoned to a meeting. "The HR rep began the meeting by asking me if I had noticed that I was the common theme in all of the reports I had been making, and that if I had ever considered that I might be the problem," Fowler wrote.

Uber's HR representative also allegedly said that "certain people of certain genders and ethnic backgrounds were better suited for some jobs than others, so [she] shouldn't be surprised by the gender ratios in engineering".

"Our meeting ended with her berating me about keeping email records of things, and [telling] me it was unprofessional to report things via email to HR," said Fowler.

Following this meeting, Fowler claims that her manager threatened to fire her if she continued reporting incidents of sexism to HR. She said that nothing was done about this threat, despite saying she then told HR and Uber's CTO, who apparently admitted that it was illegal. She claims the lack of action was once again due to the manager in question being "a high performer".

She added: "When I joined Uber, the organization [division] I was part of was over 25% women," she said. "By the time I was trying to transfer... this number had dropped down to less than 6%." On her last day, she said 3% of more than 150 engineers in her division were women.

Multiple women in Silicon Valley and beyond have taken to Twitter and the comments section of Fowler's blog to show their support and to share similar stories.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has expressed his horror at the accusations, and promised a complete investigation into the issue. "I have just read Susan Fowler's blog," he said in a statement sent to IT Pro. "What she describes is abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for and believes in."

"It's the first time this has come to my attention so I have instructed Liane Hornsey our new Chief Human Resources Officer to conduct an urgent investigation into these allegations. We seek to make Uber a just workplace FOR EVERYONE and there can be absolutely no place for this kind of behavior at Uber - and anyone who behaves this way or thinks this is OK will be fired."

Amy Douthwaite, senior associate at Kemp Little Employment, told IT Pro the claims undermine schemes aimed at bringing more women into tech, saying: "Women are notoriously under-represented in the tech sector in the UK, leading to a number of recent initiatives to encourage more women into the sector; these sorts of headlines are unlikely to help change this."

She added: "As these allegations have been so public, this may lead to employees in the UK coming forward with similar complaints, which could in turn lead to grievances and Employment Tribunal claims if they are not resolved. Of course, any allegation has to be substantiated to be upheld, but evidence of the mistreatment of other employees could be used to support arguments of an ingrained cultural problem at Uber in claims by other similarly affected employees."


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