“What Uber’s sexual harassment problem can teach women about the power of speaking out”

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Moya Crockett
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It’s terribly easy to become disheartened in the long, uphill trudge towards gender equality, and seeing how the world routinely treats men accused of sexual harassment doesn’t help. Cases where the man in question is defended and richly rewarded, while the woman is attacked and doubted, are still painfully many. And so it’s worth highlighting small victories when they occur, and examining how they were achieved.

One such victory happened this week. It involves a powerful man, sexual harassment allegations, a little-known company called Uber, and a woman who was brave enough to speak out. And we should be talking about it.

Here’s what went down. On Monday, Amit Singhal, Uber’s head of engineering, was asked to hand in his resignation, after the taxi app company discovered that he had failed to disclose a serious sexual harassment claim made against him in his previous job.

This is important, because Uber – and the tech industry in general – is not known for its stellar track record when it comes to responding decisively to women’s allegations of sexist behaviour. Yet when CEO Travis Kalanick learned that Singhal had left his former role at Google shortly after a female employee accused him of harassment (a claim that was hushed up, but deemed “credible” by an internal investigation), he quickly decided that the engineering executive’s position was untenable. Singhal was out by the end of the day.

Why the sudden ruthlessness? Singhal, after all, was a much-lauded computer scientist at the top of his game, who had only recently been hired to help Uber develop its cherished self-driving car project. No allegations of sexual harassment had been made against him at Uber, and he vociferously denied the formal complaint filed at Google, reportedly saying that “there are two sides to every story”.

Kalanick, meanwhile, is hardly a squeaky-clean, right-on male feminist himself: the “bro-y alpha nerd” once told GQ that he calls the company he founded “Boober”, because it’s so effective in helping him score with women. What really made him decide to cull one of his most high-profile executives?

For answers, we have only to look to a woman named Susan J. Fowler. Until December 2016, Fowler was a site reliability engineer (SRE) at Uber. For the last couple of weeks, she’s been the company’s biggest PR nightmare. And she is proof personified that sometimes – not always, but that crucial, vital sometimes – making noise about sexual harassment and institutional sexism works. Sometimes, going nuclear gets results.

On 19 February, Fowler posted an entry on her blog titled ‘Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year At Uber’. If you haven’t read it yet, it’s worth casting your eye over its shudder-inducing contents in full. In painstaking detail, Fowler describes how she was sexually propositioned by a male manager at Uber HQ; how she was repeatedly undermined, obstructed and lied to by the company’s HR department when she attempted to report said manager; how she was prevented from progressing in the company as a consequence of her ‘difficult’ attitude; and how several of her female colleagues experienced exactly the same thing.

Fowler tried desperately to get Uber to take her harassment claim seriously while she was working for them. She did everything by the book, everything that professional women are supposed to do when their manager insinuates they want to sleep with them: recording conversations, screenshotting messages, and – of course – working harder-harder-ever-harder so that no other excuse could be found for getting rid of her.

None of it made a blind bit of difference, she says, to the company’s entrenched “sexism”. So it stands to reason that she might not have thought going public would make a dent, either. But make a dent it did.

In fact, Fowler’s story cracked the whole thing wide open. Her initial tweet about the story has, at the time of writing, received over 30,000 likes and 22,000 retweets. The hashtag #DeleteUber started trending (again), prompting the company to send a pleading note to anyone who tried to delete the app from their smartphone (“Everyone at Uber is deeply hurting after reading Susan Fowler's blog post. What she describes is abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for and believes in”).

The hits kept coming. The New York Times published an explosive investigation into what it described as “Uber’s aggressive, unrestrained workplace culture”, including more allegations of sexual harassment. Two of the company’s earliest investors slammed what they described as the “toxic patterns” in its office culture. In their mad scramble to contain the public relations disaster suddenly threatening to consume their firm, Uber has even recruited President Obama’s former attorney general, Eric Holder, to investigate Fowler’s claims. And, of course, it dismissed Amit Singhal.

What does all this tell us? That companies may not care about you, but they sure do care about their reputation. The firing of Singhal is evidence that Uber knows it can no longer afford to be perceived as not taking sexual harassment seriously. It is evidence that being brave and making some noise, like Susan Fowler, can effect real change – whatever the dispiriting cases of Donald Trump, Casey Affleck et al. might have you believe.

Being sexually harassed at work can make women feel powerless. But if the case of Uber proves anything, it’s that speaking out can sometimes – not always, but sometimes – put the power squarely back in women’s hands.

So what can you do if you’re being sexually harassed at work?

Of course, writing a blistering viral exposé about workplace harassment isn’t an option for everyone. But if you’re being sexually harassed at work, there are steps you can take to address the issue.

According to the UK’s Equality Act 2010, sexual harassment can include:

  • Sexual comments or jokes
  • Physical behaviour, including unwelcome sexual advances, touching and various forms of assault
  • Displaying pictures, photos or drawings of a sexual nature
  • Sending emails with a sexual content

If you’re being sexually harassed by someone at work, you should:

  • Tell your manager. Put it in writing, and keep a copy of the letter or email
  • Collect evidence, and keep a diary recording all of the times you’ve been harassed
  • Talk to your HR team or trade union – they’ll be able to give you advice.

For more information, visit the Citizens’ Advice Bureau.

Images: Rex Features