Gender Discrimination at Uber Is a Reminder of How Hard Women Have to Fight to Be Believed

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Photo: MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

Susan Fowler worked as an engineer at Uber for a year — a “very, very strange year” — which began with her being sexually propositioned by a manager via the company’s chat platform and ended with her quitting after she was told she could be fired (illegally) for reporting a discriminating manager to HR. Today, Fowler works for Stripe, a payment platform, doing site reliability engineering. She started her new role in January 2017, a month after parting ways with Uber; and just last weekend, she published a horrifying blog post, describing her experience as a woman working at Uber, that has already prompted the company to launch an independent investigation.

Her post is packed with details about her time at Uber. The incident involving a manager, who was clearly hoping she’d have sex with him — he told her that he and his girlfriend were in an open relationship, but that he was having a harder time finding women to sleep with him — happened within her first few weeks at the company back in November 2016. When she reported the manager to HR, along with screenshots she’d saved of their chat conversations, Fowler was told that since it was the manager’s first offense and he was a “high performer,” he’d be let off with a warning. Fowler opted to find a new team to join, instead of continuing to work beside him, for fear of retribution. But, she saved the screenshots. And each time Fowler faced another incident — like Uber refusing to purchase previously promised leather jackets for six female employees because the company couldn’t get the same bulk discount for their jackets as it could for the ones being purchased for over 120 men — she saved screenshots and emails.

Fowler’s record-keeping habits are perhaps the most infuriating part of her yearlong struggle with the company. This is a woman who did everything “right” — a woman who kept, and showed, the receipts. She reported incidents immediately to her managers and HR, and she came to those meetings with not just verbal complaints, but with physical proof to back her allegations. “Every time something ridiculous happened, every time a sexist email was sent, I’d sent a short report to HR just to keep a record going,” Fowler explains in her post. She was an exemplary employee with a “perfect performance score.” Or at least she was until a male manager clandestinely demoted her score as a way of blocking her from transferring teams, because it made him “look good” to have women on his team while the company at large hemorrhaged women.

When Fowler started at Uber, a quarter of the staff was female. By the time she left, Fowler writes that the number had dwindled to less than 6 percent. And still, despite all her efforts to make the workplace more hospitable for herself and her fellow female engineers, her complaints were repeatedly denied by Uber. Or worse, Fowler was told that she, just by nature of filing repeated complaints, was the problem. As she spent more time working at Uber and meeting more of her female colleagues, Fowler quickly learned that the “first offense” line she’d been fed by HR was likely bogus. Multiple women told her they had reported similar issues with that manager, and when the women demanded a group meeting with HR, they were told that only Fowler had ever lodged a complaint against him. “It was such a blatant lie that there was really nothing I could do,” Fowler writes. This wasn’t the only time Fowler was gaslit while at Uber. In her final weeks with the company, an HR representative told Fowler she was the “common theme” in all her issues with the company. When Fowler explained she didn’t initiate most of those issues and had the documentation prove it, the HR rep told her the company had no record of any of her complaints. “I had a new job offer in my hands less than a week later.”

Stories of women in tech who go public with the discrimination they face in the workplace typically don’t have happy endings. Ellen Pao, who would later co-found Project Include, a nonprofit working toward promoting diversity in the tech world, famously lost the lawsuit she filed against Silicon Valley VC firm Kleiner Perkins in 2012 for unfairly gendered hiring and promotion practices. In 2015, ex-Facebook employee Chia Hong filed, and later dropped, a gender and racial discrimination suit against the company. Adria Richards was fired from her job working as a developer for SendGrid, after she tweeted a picture of two men she overheard making a sexual joke — “big dongles” — at a Python programming conference in 2013. The two men in the photo would later apologize and say that Richards was “right,” but according to her former boss at SendGrid, “publicly shaming the offenders — and bystanders — was not the appropriate way to handle the situation.”

Amélie Lamont was fired from Squarespace in 2014 for slapping a co-worker, who she alleges touched her in a bar. Lamont detailed the racial and gendered discrimination she faced during her time at the company in a lengthy post on Medium, including an anecdote in which a colleague told her that she was “so black,” her skin blended in with a dark chair and made her difficult to see. (Lamont’s lawsuit against the company was dropped after her allegations that she was coerced into signing her severance deal immediately upon receiving it turned out to be false, but it did inspire another black female ex-Squarespace employee, Stephanie Duncker, to come forward with the discrimination she faced during her time at the company.) When Julie Ann Horvath announced she was leaving her role at GitHub after being harassed by one of the company’s founders and his wife, GitHub responded by suspending the founder. (He would later resign following investigation.) But Github’s suspension is uncharacteristic in the world of Silicon Valley, not to mention it took Horvath quitting her job and publicly disparaging the company for them to do anything.

Fowler’s story, like Horvath’s, comes with implicit privilege. Both women were, fortunately, able to speak out without completely derailing their careers. Today, Horvath works as a designer at Apple; and Fowler left Uber and was able to quickly transition to a role at a different company, doing the same work she loved doing at her old job. (Not for nothing, Fowler is quite clear that when things were good at Uber, she was passionate about the work she was doing and enjoyed her job.) One harrowing year aside, her career seems to still be on track, which is likely a big part of the reason Fowler felt comfortable enough to come forward. (The recent fervor of anti-Uber sentiment following the company’s response to President Trump’s executive order limiting immigration likely didn’t hurt either.) Many people, women particularly, do not have that luxury while facing discrimination in their workplaces. Leaving just isn’t an option.

Yet even with the security of her new job, Fowler’s tell-all is still a calculated read. It’s the voice of a woman who has learned that even in a situation where you have the right to be pull-your-hair-out angry, you have to soften things if you want to get anywhere. She calls her time at Uber, “strange, fascinating, and slightly horrifying.” Slightly. As though being repeatedly lied to by your employer and having your job threatened are mere slights. Amid her very serious allegations of rampant discrimination, Fowler still wedges in her gratitude for the opportunity to learn and work at Uber. It’s a tone that feels heavily influenced by a tech world that has historically treated women like second-class citizens, and by the broader cultural implications of a society that continually ignores women’s pain and denies their struggles. For any woman who has ever felt she was in the right, despite a situation beyond her control, it’s a familiar tone. “I feel a lot of sadness, but I can’t help but laugh at how ridiculous everything was,” Fowler explains at the end of her post. Because that’s what women — both in and out of tech — often have to do to be heard: couch their very real problems with a giggle.

Women in Tech Have to Fight Insanely Hard to Be Believed