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Engineer Alleges Sexual Harassment During ‘Very, Very Strange Year at Uber’

Saturday, engineer and author Susan J. Fowler published an account at her blog of her time working at Uber, the creators of the ride-sharing app. In it, she describes a culture that allegedly allowed her manager to sexually harass her without repercussion, and also hamstrung her career at the organization by altering her performance reviews.
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Image Credit: FotografiaBasica/Getty Images

Fowler joined Uber late in 2015 as a site reliability engineer, excited to have the opportunity not only to work in a time of change and growth at the company, but also to pick her team. Once she completed training, however, she says that “things started getting weird.”

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.

Uber was a pretty good-sized company at that time, and I had pretty standard expectations of how they would handle situations like this. I expected that I would report him to HR, they would handle the situation appropriately, and then life would go on – unfortunately, things played out quite a bit differently. 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.

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Fowler was given the choice to stay on the team (knowing that this manager would likely give her a poor performance review) or move to another team. When she pointed out that this “didn’t seem like much of a choice,” and that her expertise was needed on her current team, an HR rep informed her that “it wouldn’t be retaliation if I received a negative review later because I had been ‘given an option’.”

Reluctantly, Fowler moved to another team.

Other Women Reported Similar Stories

When she met other female engineers at Uber, she “was surprised that some of them had stories similar to my own,” she writes. “Some of the women even had stories about reporting the exact same manager I had reported, and had reported inappropriate interactions with him long before I had even joined the company.”

Fowler and her colleagues approached HR again, to ask that something be done. The rep she spoke with told her the manager had never been reported before. Further, he claimed that the Fowler’s colleagues hadn’t said anything bad about him in their meetings with HR.

“It was such a blatant lie that there was really nothing I could do,” Fowler writes. “There was nothing any of us could do. We all gave up on Uber HR and our managers after that. Eventually he ‘left’ the company. I don’t know what he did that finally convinced them to fire him.”

There was nothing any of us could do. We all gave up on Uber HR and our managers after that.Click To Tweet

The Mystery of the Changing Performance Review

Anyone who’s ever worked for a startup will tell you that it can be a perfect environment for power struggles. By Fowler’s description, Uber’s infrastructure engineering org was engaged in a “game-of-thrones political war” involving upper management. The result, she says, was chaos: abandoned projects, changing OKRs, shifting priorities.

Eventually, she decided to put in for a transfer to another engineering org at the company. This should have been no problem: she had a perfect performance score. But her transfer was blocked, due to “undocumented performance problems.” Attempts to get to the bottom of these issues were fruitless; Fowler gave up and decided to wait it out until her next performance review, and then try again.

And that’s when, per her account, things got really, really weird.

Performance review season came around, and I received a great review with no complaints whatsoever about my performance. I waited a couple of months, and then attempted to transfer again. When I attempted to transfer, I was told that my performance review and score had been changed after the official reviews had been calibrated, and so I was no longer eligible for transfer. When I asked management why my review had been changed after the fact (and why hadn’t they let me know that they’d changed it?), they said that I didn’t show any signs of an upward career trajectory. I pointed out that I was publishing a book with O’Reilly, speaking at major tech conferences, and doing all of the things that you’re supposed to do to have an “upward career trajectory”, but they said it didn’t matter and I needed to prove myself as an engineer. I was stuck where I was.

Ultimately, Fowler left the organization entirely, and got a new engineering job at another company.

Why Women Leave Tech

“When I joined Uber, the organization I was part of was over 25% women,” Fowler writes. “By the time I was trying to transfer to another eng organization, this number had dropped down to less than 6%.” (Note: In Adweek, Uber says its gender ratio is 15.1 percent female across all engineering, scientist, and product management roles, but does not specify the breakdown by team.)

A dwindling number of female engineers might also partially explain the difficulty she experienced while trying to transfer within the organization: Fowler says she heard her manager bragging that although other teams were losing their female engineers, he still had some in his group.

Fowler attempted to raise the question with upper management of why so many female engineers were leaving the company.

“When I asked our director at an org all-hands about what was being done about the dwindling numbers of women in the org compared to the rest of the company, his reply was, in a nutshell, that the women of Uber just needed to step up and be better engineers,” she writes.

Uber’s Response

Within hours of Fowler’s post, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick responded on Twitter, calling the behaviors in the allegations “abhorrent” and pledging a full investigation:

On Monday, Kalanick released a memo to all staff, detailing the follow-up:

Eric Holder, former U.S. Attorney General under President Obama, and Tammy Albarran—both partners at the leading law firm Covington & Burling—will conduct an independent review into the specific issues relating to the workplace environment raised by Susan Fowler, as well as diversity and inclusion at Uber more broadly. Joining them will be Arianna Huffington, who sits on Uber’s board, Liane Hornsey, our recently hired Chief Human Resources Officer, and Angela Padilla, our Associate General Counsel. I expect them to conduct this review in short order.

Further, Kalanick says, Huffington will join him and Hornsey in addressing an all-hands meeting today. They will also have follow-up meetings with staffers one-on-one to hear their concerns.

“It is my number one priority that we come through this a better organization, where we live our values and fight for and support those who experience injustice,” Kalanick says.

The full text of Fowler’s blog post is here; Uber’s response is here.

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Has anything like this ever happened to you at work? We want to hear from you. Tell us your story in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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