Uber and tech: Are you listening now?

Uber and tech: Are you listening now?

PhoneBy Lisa Mak

This past Sunday, ex-Uber engineer Susan Fowler published a powerful blog post about the gender discrimination she experienced while working at Uber. It started with her male manager sending her messages, stating that he was in an open relationship and was trying to stay out of trouble at work but couldn’t help it, because he was looking for women to have sex with. Susan sent screenshots of the chat to Human Resources. The response? Uber HR and upper management told her that even though this was clearly sexual harassment, they were not comfortable giving the manager anything besides a warning. The reasons? This male manager was a “high performer” and it was his “first offense,” so they did not want to ruin his career over “an innocent mistake.” The company then gave Susan the “choice” of moving to another team, or staying on the male manager’s team and likely receiving a negative review from him.

When Susan later tried to transfer to other teams, her transfers were blocked due to undocumented “performance” problems. Her performance review was downgraded from a positive to a negative score, and she was told that she needed to prove herself as an engineer.

Presumably Uber, like most large U.S. companies, has a policy encouraging employees to report incidents of discrimination. Each time Susan received a sexist email, she forwarded it to HR. This included emails with her director when he said the company would not order promised leather jackets for the female engineers because they had not been able to get a bulk discount on the women’s jackets as they had for the men’s jackets. When Susan reported this to HR, she was told that maybe she was the problem, that she should not be surprised at the gender ratios in engineering, and that it was unprofessional to report things to HR via email.

Less than a week later, Susan’s manager told her that she was on “very thin ice” for her HR report and could be fired if she did it again. He also said that his threats to fire her for reporting things to HR were not illegal. Susan reported this conversation to HR and the CTO, but again the company did nothing. Susan left Uber for a new job.

After Susan’s blog post went viral, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick suddenly announced that the company is launching an “urgent” internal investigation into the matter, headed by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Some takeaways from Susan’s terrible experience: We need to stop pretending that the tech world is a pure meritocracy, and instead call out the prevalent sexism in that sector. For starters, there’s the numbers issue. On her last day at Uber, Susan calculated that of the over 150 reliability engineers there, only 3 percent were women. Just last month, civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson called out Uber to release its workforce diversity data. Why does a tech company of this size still need to be urged to be transparent about its diversity numbers? And then there’s the cultural issue – a culture that favors men in the STEM fields, that marginalizes women, and blames them when they speak out about misogyny. The problem of victim-blaming is also amplified in the tech space where employees are often on social media, with the risk of being judged by potential employers and targeted by internet trolls. We’ve known about these problems for years. So why hasn’t anything changed?

We also need to fix the double standard that underlies companies’ responses to these complaints. When Susan reported her male manager’s behavior, Uber did not want to ruin his career over a “first offense.” She later learned from other Uber female engineers that it was not, in fact, his first offense. Unfortunately, we’ve seen how companies use this excuse to sweep complaints under the rug, whether in tech or in other sectors. This attitude presumes that a man’s career opportunities are somehow more valuable and worthy of protection than a woman’s workplace rights.

Whether it was the harasser’s first offense or his fiftieth, Uber’s response was out of line as a matter of law. There is no exception to enforcing employment laws based on whether someone’s career and reputation would be “ruined” over claims of harassment and discrimination. It certainly is not a reason to avoid addressing the problem. Employers are legally obligated to investigate all complaints of harassment and to take prompt, effective action to stop it. Forcing the harassment victim to transfer is retaliation, not a remedy. Our laws focus on protecting those who suffer harassment, discrimination, and retaliation, and on eliminating those evils from our workplaces – not on whether the perpetrator will have hurt feelings or a derailed career.

Companies need to start taking complaints seriously, doing fair investigations, and taking appropriate remedial steps at the time these issues are raised. Uber is not some small start-up with five employees stuffed in a garage. It has thousands of employees, an HR department, legal counsel, and a board of directors. Why was nothing done to help Susan until she made her story public?

Uber does not get credit for now conducting an investigation into Susan’s claims, after she has already left the company and after she made a public blog post about her experience. Uber does not get credit for now committing to release its diversity statistics after this incident. Investigating and taking action should have happened long ago, instead of letting the situation spiral out of control. Kalanick’s apology now is simply too little, too late.

It should not take a blog post and public outrage to make a company finally pay attention to employees’ complaints of sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and retaliation. Our laws require companies to treat their employees fairly all the time, every time, not just when it is a PR nightmare.

Lisa Mak

About Lisa Mak

Lisa Mak is an associate attorney in the Consumer & Employee Rights Group at Minami Tamaki LLP in San Francisco. She is passionate about representing employees and consumers on an individual and class basis to protect their rights. Her practice includes cases involving employment discrimination, harassment, retaliation, wrongful termination, labor violations, and severance negotiations. Ms. Mak is the Co-Chair of the CELA Diversity Committee, Co-Chair of the Asian American Bar Association’s Community Services Committee, and an active volunteer at the Asian Law Caucus Workers’ Rights Clinic. Ms. Mak is a graduate of UC Hastings School of Law and UC San Diego. She is fluent in Cantonese and conversant in French.

Why I called my relatives this weekend

Why I called my relatives this weekend

Technological people
By Elizabeth Kristen

We are not a close family. We rarely get together.

We certainly don’t call each other on a daily or even monthly basis. It’s basically a text-on-your-birthday type of relationship.

But this weekend, I called my brother and my uncle.

My uncle is a Vietnam veteran and an accountant in Kansas. He is a steadfast democrat and demoralized having lived through Kansas Governor Sam Brownback’s destruction of public education in that state.

So he was distressed about Trump, but not mobilized to fight him. I spoke with him about his son, who he thinks voted for Trump and ways my uncle might reach his son about issues that matter to him — net neutrality.  We also chatted about my Aunt and her vote for a third party candidate.  Again, we discussed things that motivate her, such as the IDEA (providing support for students with disabilities — a law Education Secretary Betsy DeVos thinks is optional for the states).  After my conversation with my Uncle, he started emailing me about ways to get involved with fighting back against the Trump agenda.  He told me about this effort to provide a way to contact Trump through his businesses.  So I made that call, and it was great and I emailed my uncle about my experience.  I continue to text my Uncle to call his Kansas Senators.

My brother served in the Army and now lives in Indiana. He is a “white working class” voter. The ones who supposedly love Trump. But my brother also is a Democrat and an Obama supporter. When I called him, he too thought his voice didn’t matter.  I tried to convey the urgency of the panic I feel every day about how Trump is out to destroy everything I care about.

I looked up my brother’s Senators and their positions on the Executive Order Muslim ban and emailed him to call Congress.  To be honest, I am not sure he did it.  But I will keep trying.

Lots of liberals I know bemoan our inability to have conversations with Trump voters. Our emphasis on those lost conversations may be keeping us from remembering the easier and perhaps more impactful calls we can have with our friends and relatives in red states.

They need to make themselves heard too.

Those of us in blue states sometimes may believe we can’t or don’t need to do anything because our Congress people and Senators may share our views.

But we can and should still call Congress. I visited California Senator Diane Feinstein’s local office in person twice last month to urge her to vote against Jeff Sessions as Attorney General. My visit sparked others I know to do the same.

Now is not the time for business as usual. If you are calling your representatives, thank you. Just make sure that the next call you make is to friends and family to ask them to get involved in the fight. If they already are, let’s support each other and continue to connect to those in other states who also are struggling to find meaningful ways to protect the values we care about.

Elizabeth Kristen

About Elizabeth Kristen

Elizabeth Kristen is the Director of the Gender Equity & LGBT Rights Program and a senior staff attorney at Legal Aid at Work.  Ms. Kristen began her public interest career as a Skadden Fellow at Legal Aid.  Ms. Kristen graduated from University of California at Berkeley School of Law in 2001 and served as a law clerk to the Honorable James R. Browning on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.  In 2012-13, she served as a Harvard law School Wasserstein Public Interest Fellow.  She has been a lecturer at Berkeley Law School since 2008. Legal Aid at Work together with the California Women’s Law Center and Equal Rights Advocates make up the California Fair Pay Collaborative dedicated to engaging and informing Californians about fair pay issues.

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