A recent blog post by a former Uber employee is making big waves in Silicon Valley, describing an experience of prolonged and systemic sexual harassment.
Susan Fowler’s LinkedIn page says she worked as a site reliability engineer at Uber from November 2015 to December 2016, and that she left the ride-hailing giant last month for a job at the digital commerce startup Stripe.
The reason she ditched Uber, she wrote in a post entitled “Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year At Uber,” was because of her “strange, fascinating, and slightly horrifying experience.”
Within the first few weeks of her time at Uber, Fowler claimed, she was propositioned for sex by her manager, whom she then reported to HR. In turn, upper management and HR told her “that they wouldn’t feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to” because it was the employee’s first offense.
According to Fowler, HR and management were generally insensitive to, if not completely dismissive of, her claims and those of other women at Uber. At different points they apparently revised her performance reviews surreptitiously, allegedly suggested to Fowler that she was the cause of her sexual harassment issues, and threatened to fire her for reporting a manager to HR (a move Fowler says her CTO later acknowledged was illegal).
Though Fowler wrote that she was “lucky enough during all of this to work with some of the most amazing engineers in the Bay Area,” she claimed that by the time she left the Site Reliability Engineering team in January, only 3 percent of the 150 engineers in the unit were women.
Since Fowler’s blog post was published on Sunday, it has been shared widely across social media, and has provoked a significant response from Uber.
In a statement emailed to VICE News, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said, “What she describes is abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for and believes.” Additionally, he said he has instructed Uber’s new chief HR exec Liane Hornsey to “conduct an urgent investigation into these allegations.”
Arianna Huffington — media impresario, entrepreneur, and Uber board member — tweeted that she will work with Hornsey to “conduct a full independent investigation, starting now.” When asked for more detail on the nature of the “independent” investigation, an Uber spokesperson said Huffington “will be working closely with us in the coming days.”
Sexism and gender discrimination are widely considered endemic in Silicon Valley, and efforts to combat them have largely fallen flat. Some of Uber’s behavior over the last couple years may offer a little insight into where a corporate culture like this might have come from.
In 2014, CEO Travis Kalanick joked to a GQ reporter about a “women on demand” startup called “Boob-er.” In response to a BuzzFeed News investigation last year, Uber suggested BuzzFeed had overestimated the number of sexual assault complaints that Uber had received about its drivers, in part because “any email address or rider/driver last name that contains the letters R, A, P, E consecutively (for example, Don Draper)” would affect the number of results that show up.
In a correction later posted to its letter, Uber admitted that its customer support software provider had “contacted us to say that their search tool would not return a name such as ‘Don Draper’ when searching for the word ‘rape.’”
Susan Fowler did not immediately respond to a further request for comment.