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Why Uber’s Fate Is No ‘Watershed’ Moment for Women In Silicon Valley

6 minute read

When I read over the report on Uber’s workplace culture by former Attorney General Eric Holder’s law firm, I felt an overwhelming sense of déjà vu, which probably isn’t uncommon for any woman who’s experienced sexual harassment and discrimination in the tech industry. The formula is almost predictable: Woman takes issue to HR several times, HR fails to act or appropriately reprimand responsible parties, then woman gets sick of it, leaves and either does or doesn’t tell her story publicly.

Perhaps it’s Uber’s impressive success in consumer markets around the world which makes Uber’s case so much different than Ellen Pao’s gender discrimination lawsuit against VC firm Kleiner Perkins or my own experience at GitHub. But it’s curious that every time a woman takes her story of workplace harassment public, it’s as if it’s happening in our industry for the very first time.

While it might seem, from the clamoring around diversity and inclusion at Silicon Valley companies, that we’re getting better at tackling sexism in our industry, we simply aren’t. We’re just finding better ways to conceal it.

Uber’s situation has been called a “watershed” moment for the tech industry. But that kind of proclamation insinuates that those of us who have already taken our own experiences with harassment in tech public — and have suffered greatly for doing so — have been less impactful or successful in our attempts to shine light on an issue that remains pervasive in tech.

Uber only began to seriously look into its culture after former engineer Susan Fowler wrote a blog post in February detailing her experience with harassment and retaliation at the company. And initially, Uber wouldn’t even admit the scope of its problems. In March, Uber board member Arianna Huffington said sexual harassment wasn’t a “systemic” problem at the company, an idea later dispelled by the external investigation. Huffington then said she would help with the investigation, acting as the voice for the company, defending then-CEO Travis Kalanick and even speaking personally to female employees at the company about their experiences. You can see the clear conflict of interest here.

It’s interesting Uber opted to have a woman serve as the public face for the company during its investigation. It’s almost as if to say: if a woman speaks positively about the culture, then the woman who gives a negative account can’t possibly be telling the truth. The public silence of ex-coworkers, particularly women, was deafening during my experience. I only kept a few friends at GitHub after my ordeal, and even they were afraid to make contact for fear of retribution by the company.

What that sort of behavior really does is discourage women from reporting harassment and discrimination to human resources. Why would a woman want to report her own experience if she sees another woman’s account glossed over and ignored by the company?

The thing about being the only woman to take your experience public is that you’re up against a lot from the minute you speak up. You put your financial stability and employability at risk.

Almost four years after I spoke out publicly about my experience at GitHub, I still get an occasional threat and/or email telling me I’m unemployable from people in the industry. But, without a doubt, the most intimidating part about taking your experience public is waging a fight against a company with far more resources than you have. Uber and GitHub have teams of lawyers at their disposal.

Women often reach out to me for advice when they face similar experiences in their own workplace. I immediately tell them to seek legal counsel if they can afford it. I’ve written and tweeted to help raise money for friends who have signed NDAs and want to throw them out. It’s important to understand your rights as an employee, especially in Silicon Valley, where startups live and die by at-will employment.

The second thing I usually advise is to document everything. I wish I did a better job at this. I didn’t initially imagine how useful a few screenshots might be in the future. But I know now that they can give you ammunition or leverage to protect yourself, your financial stability and your future career prospects.

Women will remain unsafe in our industry if we are kept out of board rooms and senior leadership. We will remain vulnerable to abuse, so long as we are lacking in the resources to protect ourselves from it.

We need to value women as much as we value men in the technology industry — where “meritocracy” has been used to explain away the lack women and minorities in top leadership roles. Not only are women underrepresented in technical roles, they’re also underpaid compared to men who hold the same positions as them. Women hold fewer senior roles and are often passed over for promotions. That means the people in power usually don’t look like us or go through the things we do as women in technology. They lack the ability to compassionately empathize with our experiences. They lack the motivation or the imperative to fix the gender gap both in terms of representation and pay.

I fear that Uber’s planned remedies to address the situation — including changes to its leadership, adding more independent board members, improving human resources, making it easier for employees to file complaints and shaking up the company culture — will amount to nothing more than “diversity theatre” for the sake of clearing its name and quieting down the headlines. It’s hard to tell whether Uber will compel other tech companies to take claims of sexual harassment and gender discrimination more seriously — or if they’ll just learn how to better deal with the bad press that results in women taking their experiences public.

But this surely won’t be the last time we’ll hear a woman discuss her disturbing experience in the Valley. Just this past weekend, the co-founder of venture capital firm Binary Capital LLC resigned after admitting misconduct toward female entrepreneurs. His resignation was prompted, again, by women speaking out.

Julie Horvath is an advocate of diversity in tech.

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