Women in Silicon Valley react to allegations of sexism at Uber

Women in Silicon Valley react to allegations of sexism at Uber
Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of US tranportation company Uber Travis Kalanick gestures as he speaks at an event in New Delhi on December 16, 2016. / AFP / MONEY SHARMA MONEY SHARMA/Getty Images
Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of US tranportation company Uber Travis Kalanick gestures as he speaks at an event in New Delhi on December 16, 2016. / AFP / MONEY SHARMA MONEY SHARMA/Getty Images

It's been a rough three weeks for Uber. This weekend, a blog post went viral from engineer Susan Fowler, a former employee, that described gross sexism at the ride-sharing giant. Fowler cited several examples of discrimination in the workplace and retaliation for reporting it to HR. 

For women in Silicon Valley, the most unsettling element to Fowler's blog post wasn't the allegations themselves, but the tech community's newfound shock and outrage over harassment and inequality in the industry.

"Are these people living under a rock?"

It's not just the companies we hate that are guilty of harboring a sexist work culture, engineer Cate Huston pointed out in a blog post. Discrimination permeates through the companies we love, too.

"I'm always a little surprised when women speak publicly because the cost of that is so high," Huston told Mic. "Am I ever surprised of that stuff happening? No. Was I surprised that it was happening at Uber? Hell no. … Are these people living under a rock?"

A systemic problem

Huston said that she also knows of "a lot of terrible stories" from when she worked at Google, and that she has friends at "every major tech company" with stories similar to Fowler's. (She declined to comment specifically which companies at the risk of outing any friends.)

Leigh Honeywell, a security engineering manager, said in a Twitter message that "anyone surprised about this hasn't been paying attention." She linked to a timeline of sexist incidents that have occurred across tech, gaming and software communities, to name a few.

"I think they should take a hard look at why they are so surprised," Huston said. "Do they remember Gamergate? Do they not know any women? Do they not know any people of color? How you can not know this is going on says a lot about your network and who you speak to and who speaks to you."

Jessica Price, a game producer at Paizo, formerly at Microsoft, told Mic that every time a new allegation comes out, we have to start from square one again and remind people that yes, this actually happens, and yes, this isn't unique to this company. That cycle is detrimental to making progress, she said.

"If you have to spend all of your time managing the emotions of people claiming to be shocked by this and proving that it happens, you never get a chance to fix it, and it's hard to not feel like it's intentional," Price said.

The problem with human resources 

Valerie Aurora, founder of tech diversity and inclusion firm Frame Shift Consulting, said HR departments are actually a major roadblock to gender equality in the workplace because they exist to "make problems go away."

She added that while CEOs may think of themselves as feminists or spread feminist ideas, they install HR departments that are rewarded for making problems go away. 

Aurora said there needs to be structural change in how HR is run. 

"What I liked about this Uber story is how clearly they made the connection between high performers [who are] allowed to sexually harass women," Aurora said. "That is happening in a lot of companies."

A former Apple employee told Mic in September 2016 that when she filed a complaint with HR regarding a male manager who looked at her inappropriately, she felt they brushed it aside. Speaking with Mic about the Uber allegations, she called them "appalling."

"[Apple] told me, basically, 'Play the game or maybe you don't belong here,'" she said in a phone call. "I think back to that. That should be the sole purpose of the HR department, to keep employees happy and keep morale up. That attitude creates so much toxicity."

She said that the directive has to come from the C-suite level. There's nothing employees can do to fix HR, so it has to come from above HR.

"What preserves the status quo isn't mustache-twirling, villainous sexism — it's people who look away when it happens in front of them," Price said.

The price for women of color is even greater

Price also noted that when it comes to reporting sexual harassment, not all women experience it the same way. White women, she said, have a built-in cultural protectiveness.

"At least when I come out and say I was sexually harassed, I get sympathy, I get a response that is protective, rather than … 'Eh, maybe you deserved it,' or even just 'I don't care' — which is what a lot of women of color get," said Price, who is white.

Amy Nguyen, an engineer at Pinterest, said in a Twitter DM that it's easy for people who aren't marginalized to think that incidents like Fowler's happen only to "other people" or are rarer than they seem.

"When it's a white woman at a huge tech company with a very clear timeline of everything that happened to her, it feels shocking because it could happen to any of us," Nguyen said.

"I hope all CEOs are paying attention," venture capitalist Ellen Pao, Reddit's former CEO, said in a tweet. "It is probably at your startup too."

Aurora, of Frame Shift Consulting, agreed. "I think the lesson of sexism in tech is that no woman is white enough or rich enough or powerful enough that she won't be thrown under the bus if it's necessary to protect men in power. It just takes rich white powerful women longer to figure it out."