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Uber CEO orders ‘urgent’ probe after ex-employee alleges sexual harassment, gender bias at company

Susan J Fowler had joined Uber in 2015 and has recounted her experiences in a detailed blog.


“It was an organization in complete, unrelenting chaos.” This is what a former female employee has to say about working for one of the biggest startups in the world. Susan J Fowler who joined Uber as a Site Reliability Engineer (SRE) back in November 2015 has recounted the extreme sexism she suffered during her one year of employment, which forced her to quit the company.

When Fowler started working with the organization, there were 25 percent female workers, a year later, the ratio was down to just 6 percent. As Fowler recounts, soon after her training, things started getting weird. From a manager who was sending her inappropriate messages over company chats for sexual favors to the higher management engaged in a ‘Game of Thrones’-like political war to seize the better position, Uber is being described as an utter ‘chaos’.

In her blog titled, “Reflecting on one very, very strange year at Uber,” Fowler narrates how within the first few weeks, the organization’s deep-set sexism started emerging. While it is generally assumed that working at an organization this big, first instances of workplace misbehavior or harassment are overlooked, Fowler had started notifying the HR right from the first instance. Labelling it as a ‘first offence,’ the HR repeatedly downturned Fowler’s complaints against the manager and didn’t take any action against him as he was a ‘high performer’. The HR instead gave Fowler two choices; either to choose a different team to work with or stay in the same team and be prepared for a poor performance review. Despite other female employees raising similar concerns, sometimes involving the same manager, the HR refused to take action.

Although the manager at fault did eventually quit Uber, the reason was not the repeated sexual offence but something more intense brewing at the company’s core engineering unit. The growing political war at Uber resulted in ramifications other than regular exits of employees. As Fowler puts it, the Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) were changed multiple times each quarter and employees seemed to have no clue as to what their priorities would be the next day. ALSO READ: DTU student bags Rs 71 lakh annual package from Uber

Despite the chaos, Fowler reiterates how she was able to get things done and had an amazing team of engineers to work with. As engineers began transferring to less chaotic projects, Fowler also tried her luck and requested for a transfer. According to Fowler, she had managers who wanted her on their teams, and she had a perfect performance score, yet she was denied a transfer. The reason – ‘undocumented performance problems.’ When she kept pushing for an explanation, all that the management had to say was that “performance problems aren’t always something that has to do with work, but sometimes can be about things outside of work or your personal life.”

Given her excellent performance score ‘on paper’, she was sponsored by Uber for a Stanford CS graduate program. However, after the new negative score, she was no longer eligible for the program. Fowler, nonetheless, kept stronger and continued working when one day the level of absurdity reached epic proportions. The director of Fowler’s engineering organization sent an email in response to Fowler’s request for leather jackets which was denied because the request made (for just six women employees) was not justified. When Fowler asked as to why the Uber SRE couldn’t find the budget for six jackets if they were being promised to the entire team and that it wasn’t fair, the director responded saying, if they wanted equality, they should realize they were getting equality by not getting the jackets, simply because ordering six jackets was expensive than the bulk order for men’s jackets.

When the matter was again brought to the attention of the HR, the representative, in turn, blamed Fowler for being the root cause of the happenings and that how she was the problem and not others. When she pointed out how there were only few women SREs at Uber, the female representative said how certain people of certain genders and ethnic backgrounds were better suited for engineering jobs and how Fowler shouldn’t be surprised at the ratio. The meeting was followed by Fowler having another one-to-one meeting with her manager where he threatened her of firing if she continued with such reporting to the HR. When she reported the threat to the HR and to the CTO, they acknowledged it was illegal to threat like that but no action was taken because yet again, the manager was a ‘high performer’. ALSO READ: Supreme Court to hear Uber’s plea against allegations of predatory pricing on March 1

On her last day at Uber, Fowler recounts how out of over 150 engineers in the SRE teams, only 3 percent were women. After Fowler’s detailed account went public, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, issued a statement saying that what Fowler described “is abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for and believes in.” He further said that he has ordered urgent investigation into the allegations made by Fowler. “We seek to make Uber a just workplace 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,” Kalanick said.

This isn’t the first time that a personal account with sexism at workplace has been shared by former employees of some of the big names in the technology industry. Right from Google, Apple to Microsoft, there have been instances of repeated sexism and gender inequality. In a reverse instance, Yahoo chief Marissa Mayer had been accused of gender inequality against men in her organization.

Meanwhile, it is also not the first time that Uber has been accused of sexism. CEO Kalanick made a joke about women-on-demand in a widely-circulated GQ profile from 2014. A year later, the company made news for getting thousands of customer complaints mentioning the word ‘rape’ and ‘sexual assault.’ Back home in India, the Delhi court sentenced life-term imprisonment in 2015 to an Uber driver accused of raping a 27-year-old woman passenger.

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  • Published Date: February 20, 2017 12:48 PM IST