Uber’s Dismissive Attitude to Female Engineers Part of Larger Picture of Company Injustices


Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s response to a former engineer’s complaints about pervasive sexual harrassment and HR failures comes too late to turn around Uber’s plummeting public image.

Susan Fowler has published claims that her supervisor made sexual advances toward her and other female engineers and that Uber human resources (HR) constantly rejected opportunities to address these behaviors. This sexual harassment news is part of a larger picture of Uber company policies that fail to confront and remedy injustices as they occur.

Uber has been one of the few tech companies in the past that has declined to release a diversity report, and its CEO has been quoted as referring to his company as “Boober,” a reference to his sexual successes since the company became prosperous. Fighting unionization, failure to grant employee status, and offering a very low wage to drivers — many of whom are immigrants and people of color — only add to the cycle of diversity issues that compound recent Uber company ennui about pervasive sexual harassment.


An Uber female engineer’s story about misogyny

On February 19, 2017, former Uber engineer, Susan Fowler, wrote a post on her blog titled, “Reflecting on One Very, Very Strange Year at Uber.” In it, she narrated her experiences as an Uber site reliability engineer (SRE) beginning in November, 2015. Her employment with Uber started off with an initial training period.  Then, on her first official day working on a team that matched her particular area of expertise, Fowler received sexually explicit messages via the company chat space from —- ready? — her team manager. She took screenshots of these and immediately reported him to HR.

What was the result in what was deemed by HR to be “clearly sexual harassment?”

As it was the “man’s first offense,” the company said they would only feel “comfortable” giving him a warning and “a stern talking-to.” As he was a “high performer” (read: excellent performance reviews by other males), the deduction was that he had made an “innocent mistake.” Fowler was advised to either find another team or be ready to receive a poor performance review from this same team manager.

Finding a new team it was.

As the year went on and Fowler accumulated SRE successes, she met other women engineers at Uber. She was surprised that some of them had stories similar to her own, and their complaints were also dismissed by HR. Several of these female engineers scheduled subsequent meetings with HR about patterns of pervasive sexual harassment, but their complaints continued to be denied and suppressed.

After finishing a major project, Fowler “had completed all OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) on schedule, never missed a deadline even in the insane organizational chaos, and had managers waiting for me to join their team.” She was publishing a book, was speaking at major tech conferences, and was enrolled in a Stanford CS graduate program, sponsored by Uber.  Yet claims of “undocumented performance problems” that were related to “things outside of work or your personal life” prevented Fowler from receiving a transfer to other organizations within Uber. Then Fowler overheard her manager “boasting to the rest of the team” that keeping a female engineer on the team made him look good, even though the rest of the teams were losing their women engineers “left and right.”

At Fowler’s time of hiring, females held 25% of organizational positions at Uber; about a year later, that number had dropped down to less than 6%.  Fowler left employment with Uber after she was told:

  • by a director that “the women of Uber just needed to step up and be better engineers;”
  • 120+ male engineers would receive leather jackets but “no leather jackets were being ordered for the women because there were not enough women in the organization to justify placing an order;”
  • “there was absolutely no record in HR of any of the incidents” Fowler had reported;
  • “sometimes certain people of certain genders and ethnic backgrounds were better suited for some jobs than others,” so she shouldn’t be surprised by the unbalanced gender ratios in engineering;
  • she “was on very thin ice for reporting” a manager to HR; and,
  • by a superior that he was “threatening to fire” her for reporting gender discrimination to HR, a reason for termination that “was not illegal.”

Sexual harassment in the tech industry became public knowledge in 2012 when Ellen Pao filed a sexual discrimination lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Maybe it’s time to make it illegal to require gag orders from employees upon hiring so that, yes, people from within organizations can have the freedom to utter disparaging but authentic claims about employers, even in those new and innovative tech upstarts.

Photo credit: salguodbocaj via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND


About the Author

Carolyn grew up in Stafford Springs, CT, home of the half-mile tar racetrack. She’s an avid Formula One fan (this year’s trip to the Monza race was memorable). With a Ph.D. from URI, she draws upon digital media literacy and learning to spread the word about sustainability issues. Please follow me on Twitter and Facebook and Google+

  • Steve Hanley

    Non-Disclosure Agreements are a pestilence. How could any court possibly think that the bargaining power between a prospective employee and an employer is a valid contract between two parties with equal power to negotiate? The idea is preposterous and an affront to any notion of fairness.

    However, such agreements have what lawyers call an “in terrorem” effect. Even if they are not enforceable, most people are afraid to challenge them. Donald Trump has gotten where he is partly because everyone he does business with is forced to sign an NDA promising never to say anything about our #FakePresident, even if he says or does something that may constitute a crime.

    Clearly those agreements would be struck down by the courts, but does any private individual want to go to court and face a battalion of Gucci-shod corporate lawyers? The legal bills alone would bankrupt most people even if the are successful in court.

    “In torrorem” indeed.