UPDATE: In the two weeks since we’ve published this story, two more former female Uber engineers have come forward with allegations of sexism and sexual harassment. One “Uber survivor” anonymously detailed what she had endured at the company on Medium. And now a third engineer has spoken out with a story that is very similar and yet very different.
When Susan Fowler, a successful founder, author and former site reliability engineer at Uber, took to her personal blog Sunday night to detail what she calls “one very, very strange year at Uber,” the public was shocked at what she had to say. She detailed blatant sexism, sexual harassment and illegal workplace retaliation that was targeted at her as well as other female employees (who she says made up 25 percent of the company when she joined in November 2015 but only 3 percent when she left in December 2016).
The details are so bad that it’s really worth reading her original post, but some of the bullet points of her experience are:
- On her first official day, her manager propositioned her for sex via the company’s chat platform.
- When she reported him to HR, she was told that even though this was clearly sexual harassment, he wouldn’t be punished because he was a high performer and this was his first offense.
- She was given the option to switch to another team or stay put, but she was warned the latter would most likely result in a negative performance review, which they claimed wouldn’t be retaliation because she was given a choice.
- It turned out numerous other women reported the same manager for the same thing, and they were all told nothing would happen and that it was his first offense.
- The company discriminated against its female employees in ways such as buying leather jackets for all the men but no women, which it justified in the most absurd way.
- There were a lot more ridiculous and shady interactions with HR and her manager where she was victim-blamed, threatened that she’d be fired for reporting things to HR and more.
- False negative performance reviews caused a block of her transfer request, affected her salary and bonuses and made her ineligible for the Uber-sponsored Stanford CS graduate program she was currently enrolled in.
Uber has since opened an investigation into the allegations.
To many, this was unexpected, shocking and another reason to #DeleteUber (Here are 10 others, by the way).
But to women in the tech world, it’s what they deal with every day. It’s what they’ve been saying all along that has either gone ignored, questioned and/or dismissed. (Even with the supportive reaction, Fowler’s story again proved society’s tendency to immediately meet such accusations with skepticism. Some top comments on her post are from readers demanding the screenshots, telling her to “piss off,” wondering if this is “a feminist delusion” and pointing out how “it is very commonplace to whine about sexism and call everything sexist in the bay area.”)
But to women in tech, this was THEIR story, and it was finally getting attention.
“Susan’s story is something we hear at least once a week in our Tech Ladies community, no exaggeration,” Allison Esposito, founder of Tech Ladies, a robust and quickly expanding community for women in tech, told the Observer. “These problems are pervasive in tech. I worry about the women whose stories don’t go viral like Susan’s did.”
Yesterday afternoon, we began reaching out to women in the tech world to ask for their reactions to Fowler’s post and experience. What we got in response was women telling us their own stories of sexual harassment and sexism. We knew this runs rampant in tech, but we didn’t realize it’d be this easy to find it.
So here are 12 stories like Fowler’s, told by the women themselves. All of these women currently work in tech, and their stories are about experiences at former employers.
Hayley Anderson, Core Engineer at Meetup
“Last summer, after I was laid off without explanation, one of the managers from my former employer tried to explain to me what happened. He told me that, by default, female engineers are going to be disrespected and harassed. In order to be respected, a woman has to stand up for herself, but only in the right way. He said, ‘You tried to stand up for yourself, but you did it in a way that made you look like a cunt. We all think you’re a cunt, and nobody can respect a cunt. So of course we had to fire you.’ I don’t tell this story because it was the worst thing that happened to me. I tell it because he effectively put into words the contempt with which I was treated every day for months.”
Nirupama Mallavarupu, founder at LocalArq Inc.
“I have worked for over two decades in the tech industry. When you have a grievance, Human Resources department is not going to help you. After all, they are employed by the same management that is treating you unfairly. It is the culture that is handed down from the top that defines the atmosphere in any workplace. When I became pregnant with my second child, my bosses at Sun Microsystems were not happy with me. They moved me out of a key initiative I was working on. I was kept idle for months together which is very frustrating for an engineer. Naive as I was, I went to HR to complain about everything. And all it resulted was in me getting fired while I was on my maternity leave. They structured it so that my last day would be the day after I returned from maternity leave. This really opened my eyes to the role of HR in a company—to support management’s agenda. They do not really care about the welfare of engineers.”
Hannah Levy, head of content at Amino
“I’ve dealt with these issues first-hand, having escalated a sexual harassment incident to an executive at a company I used to work for (no HR team to speak of) only to be asked if it could have been either a misunderstanding or my fault entirely for prompting the unwanted attention/comments. He was an engineer who was highly valued on the team, so despite the fact that there had been multiple reports of inappropriate behavior from this person, no real punishment was given. I was saddened but not surprised to read Susan’s story. It’s an unfortunate reminder that sexual harassment is a huge problem at tech companies both large and small. We fight and fight for diversity in tech, but once we assemble a diverse team, what is being done to keep people happy and in healthy work environments? Either these companies are not set up to properly handle the reports or the companies are turning a blind eye in favor of holding onto ‘high performers,’ even if they are harassing their coworkers.”
Linda Ricci, CEO at Decahedralist Inc.
“Just two days ago, I posted in a Women in VR group that I’m on the lookout for a CTO. A guy PMd me saying, ‘Hi Linda, I know you are looking for a specific gender of people when searching for co-founder, but it may also help you to co-found with ‘someone who isn’t and doesn’t think like you,’ which completes you on some levels.’ I don’t think I need to explain how it’s ridiculously condescending. I find quite often the sexism isn’t completely blatant. I think he actually believes he’s doing me a favor, but it is patronizing as hell. I asked him if he thought all women think alike, because, biology, and if he volunteered the same unsolicited advice to teams of men.”
Melanie Strathdee, IT programmer at The App Assembly
“I was contacted by a recruiter last week completely unsolicited. I have 18 yrs experience in IT, and we spent some time discussing my experience and skills. Then he told me he doesn’t see many women who are programmers, as we aren’t as good as men because we don’t think the same way. We are not capable of the high end processing skills that men have so we can’t do the job as well. I was shocked and appalled . I’ve been doing this for a long time. I know I can hold my own and I’m good at what I do. But what if this was me 15 to 18 years ago when I was new to this stuff and only knew a little of what I know now? What if I was young and at the beginning of my career, trying to get my foot in the door? Would I have stepped out of my comfort zone and applied for jobs? How could I believe in myself if the recruiter putting me forward for a job didn’t believe that I could do it? We need to encourage women to get into these roles and sexist attitudes and preconceived prejudiced won’t make that happen.”
Laura Kimpel-Matthews, senior IT project manager
“With every word I read in Susan Fowler’s post, my heart sank a bit more. I knew the comments would be full of people asking for proof, claiming that it was all for attention or otherwise discrediting Fowler’s recount of a horrific experience. But as for me, I believe her. I believe because I’ve experienced similar situations and so have many of my female friends in the field. I had a friend see a job offer revoked after she tried to negotiate for a market rate salary. I watched a friend get pushed out of a senior developer role for not being vocal enough after she was repeatedly silenced in management meetings. I myself have been told in at least one performance review with a previous company that I needed to change things that couldn’t be explained, supported or quantified. It’s absolutely maddening. There are so many stories of disparate treatment between men and women in this field; how many of these accounts can we read before we change our behaviors? I’ll be listening with open ears in the coming weeks as Uber board members and executives work to address this, but can’t help feeling discouraged considering the state of women in Technology.”
‘We fight and fight for diversity in tech, but once we assemble a diverse team, what is being done to keep people happy and in healthy work environments?’
Sysamone Phaphon, founder and CEO at Groupeezz
“Susan’s story about her time at Uber is not unusual. It’s actually all too familiar of what many of us women face but are too fearful to share. I admire her courage. I entered as a non-tech founder transitioning into a male dominated industry and here were some of the comments of sexism and sexual harassment I received from various men ranging from engineers to investors:
- ‘I can help you if you are open to more than a working relationship.’
- ‘How about we date and I mentor you at the same time?’
- ‘You look too pretty and soft spoken to run a tech company. You should get a strong male co-founder.’
- ‘You don’t look like an engineer.’
- ‘Would you like to go on a date. I have a girlfriend, but I’m in an open relationship.'”
Ash Coleman, engineering manager, quality
“The devastation a woman feels when she has recognized the unfair behavior and discrimination towards her in the workplace is so poorly calculated by management and HR. Especially for those who have never experienced it or, by some miracle, are able to separate themselves from the abuse by claiming ‘that’s the way things are’ or ‘at least it is better than it was before.’ Personally I had been coerced into the idea that the treatment I was receiving was fair and had been encouraged to have more compassion for those whom are male and white, as they are not able to comprehend the issues that women have, and more importantly in my case, the issues that women of color have. Luckily I am no longer attached to organizations where behavior like this is treated with such low priority. These experiences have the potential to and did really minimize my ability to perform at my job and stripped away valuable learning that could contribute to building my career. If this is what is expected when entering a workplace or has been warned against to all women applicants, this is a clear indication that the organization is doing a poor job at confronting and disciplining issues that are within the scope of this discrimination. These issues need to be called out and should be taken seriously. In other words, people need to do better.”
Anonymous, formerly at Microsoft and Zynga
“Why are people surprised about Susan’s experience? That’s what I’m surprised about. The Ellen Pao trial happened. Perhaps people don’t remember it because nobody was held accountable for the bias she experienced? Some bias, sexism and other issues I experienced include:
- Bias in performance reviews and goals at Zynga. My boss, the CSO, would change my completed work goals to incomplete before passing along to the CTO for publishing to entire company. When I raised the issue to the Chief People Officer, she let me know that all reviews and goals were subjectively given out by managers, and there were no checks and balances.
- While at Microsoft, I was recognized as a high performer. After I had a baby and returned to work in 2010, my boss, an only child Air Force academy grad, gave me the lowest review score that a person could receive. This was my first review a few months after returning from maternity leave. Like Susan, with the ‘low performer’ review score there was no option for me to look for another job within MS. I was forced to find work elsewhere.
I feel like I could list bullet points forever. People embezzling? Check. Stealing? Check. Trolling with zero consequences? Check. Sex and drugs on corporate campus? Check. Multiple investigations launched into bad behavior with ‘nothing to see here’ as the response? Check check check.”
Anne T. Griffin, product manager at Red Fuse Communications
“Though I’ve never been in a situation exactly like that of Susan’s, I’ve experienced the sexism and a bit of the sexual harassment. I really identified with her experience of the company holding back her transfer because of vague ‘performance problems’ despite being the ideal candidate. I fit the criteria for the promotion and had worked with a career coach for over a year and saw peers with less experience (white men) get promoted over me, a woman of color. It was enough that I handed in my resignation less than a month after trying to work with HR and my manager to identify what I needed to ‘improve’ or ‘show growth’ in.”
Sarah Carson, founder and CEO at Leota
“In my prior career as an investment banker, I experienced some humiliating, illegal sexual harassment situations. Of course I reported it, and was told by mentors, ‘you’re lucky, I’ve seen a lot worse’ and by HR, ‘can you sign these docs saying you won’t sue us?’ No one flourishes in that type of environment. Women aren’t going to stand for that treatment anymore. Note to managers: it’s not hard to create a work environment that is free from harassment. When I decided to become an entrepreneur, it was important to me to create an empowering, fair and fun meritocracy and things would be the opposite of sexist.”
Allison Esposito, founder at Tech Ladies (which recently pulled out of an Uber diversity event)
“Susan’s story is something we hear at least once a week in our Tech Ladies community, no exaggeration. These problems are pervasive in tech. I worry about the women whose stories don’t go viral like Susan’s did. I hope that people continue to speak up about this kind of harassment but that they do so strategically after they’ve found a new job. I’ve seen way too many careers stymied by speaking up right after being fired. And I hope that people in tech continue to support women in their day-to-day interactions at work and amplify women’s voices when they speak up about these kinds of things.”
Quotes have been edited for grammar and style.