In colossal shock, Uber alleged to be wretched hive of sexism, craven managerial ass-covering

Uber CEO orders investigation into tribulations of engineer Susan Fowler

By Richard Chirgwin


Updated Colour us surprised: a Silicon Valley darling famous for belligerent market entries, raising middle fingers at regulators and having a relaxed attitude to tax has been accused of also completing a bingo-card of bad management that includes sexism, arse ass-covering, empire-building and malicious management.

That startup is Uber and the source of the accusations is Susan Fowler, who in a post details what she calls "On One Very, Very Strange Year At Uber."

The O'Reilly author's claims, if true, are more than a little stunning, since in hiring Fowler, Uber must have known it was hiring brains and expertise: as well as working on microservices at the not-a-taxi company, she's studied particle physics.

None of which was enough for someone to treat her as anything but “fresh meat” when she joined. “On my first official day rotating on the team, my new manager sent me a string of messages over company chat,” in which said manager propositioned her for sex.

Screenshots in hand, Fowler approached human resources, and her description sounds all too familiar: a high-performing employee they described as a first offender can only expect a “warning and a stern talking to”.

Fowler took the unwanted but sensible decision to move to another team working on her specialty, system reliability, and as time passed, started hearing from other women in the company.

Do we need to tell you that “first offender” was the kindest possible assessment of the manager's behaviour? Of course not: “Some of the women even had stories about reporting the exact same manager I had reported, and had reported inappropriate interactions with him long before I had even joined the company”.

Time passed. The offender left the company, Fowler's work continued – and she also got a look at, and suffered under, a more generally toxic culture.

We won't recite the empire-building, colleague-stiffing, performance-review-gaming in full, but it's worth noting that Fowler also reckons Uber was toxic to women across the board. Here's one of her observations:

When I joined Uber, the organisation I was part of was over 25 per cent women. By the time I was trying to transfer to another eng organisation, this number had dropped down to less than 6 per cent. Women were transferring out of the organisation, and those who couldn't transfer were quitting or preparing to quit. There were two major reasons for this: there was the organisational chaos, and there was also the sexism within the organisation. When I asked our director at an org all-hands about what was being done about the dwindling numbers of women in the org compared to the rest of the company, his reply was, in a nutshell, that the women of Uber just needed to step up and be better engineers.

And it's also worth noting another claim, that Fowler was told she was the common theme in all her complaints of a sexist organisation – something that will ring depressingly true to anyone who ever tried to challenge a large employer.

Is it Uber alone? That would be difficult to credit – especially when tech culture is so repeatedly stood up as a sexist “white boy's club”, in and out of the Valley. ®

Updated to add

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has hit Twitter, as follows, promising a swift investigation into Fowler's post.

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