On Sunday, Susan Fowler, a former engineer with Uber, posted on her personal blog a very disturbing account of her time spent working for the tech giant at one of their Silicon Valley offices.
Fowler, a veteran software engineer and best-selling technical writer, describes a harrowing interaction with an anonymous male executive who propositioned her for sex. In Fowler's own words:
"He was in an open relationship, he said, and his girlfriend was having an easy time finding new partners but he wasn't.
He was trying to stay out of trouble at work, he said, but he couldn't help getting in trouble, because he was looking for women to have sex with.
It was clear that he was trying to get me to have sex with him, and it was so clearly out of line that I immediately took screenshots of these chat messages and reported him to HR."
However, Uber's HR department declined to punish the executive because, according to Fowler, he was a "high performer." She was given the choice to switch engineering teams or expect a negative performance review from the manager who she indicted.
But the culture of sexism only got worse and in some cases downright weird – apparently the firm promised custom leather jackets to the entire engineering team but only the male members received them.
Fowler meticulously documented every email exchange and eventually went back to HR with all her findings. They essentially threatened to fire her (illegally) for keeping records of the harassment. This was the last straw for Fowler who sought and secured a new engineering position with Stripe.
Silicon Valley under scrutiny
Uber's CEO and founder Travis Kalanick responded promptly to Fowler's viral allegations:
1/ What's described here is abhorrent & against everything we believe in. Anyone who behaves this way or thinks this is OK will be fired. https://t.co/6q29N7AL6E— travis kalanick (@travisk) February 20, 2017
Uber also announced it will be commencing an independent investigation into the HR department and sexual harassment claims chaired by none other than former Obama Attorney General Eric Holder and board member Arianna Huffington.
The high profile team is meant to signal the sincerity with which Kalanick regards these matters, but also repair their image following last month's #DeleteUber campaign. After reportedly losing over 200,000 accounts in a matter of days, the CEO resigned from Trump's advisory council and created a $3 million fund for immigrant drivers.
Unfortunately, sexual harassment and discrimination within Silicon Valley tech firms is not a new story.
The New York Magazine has a thorough good rundown of various high to low-profile instances in the past few years. It just goes to show that even in the most progressive areas of the business world, the old specter of gender discrimination continues to lurk and take new forms.