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The Workplace That Susan Fowler Wrought

In February 2017, a former Uber engineer published a blog post about her experiences with sexual harassment at the company—and unwittingly started a movement. A year later, has the tech industry done anything to change the climate that Fowler described?

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On February 19, 2017, a site-reliability engineer named Susan Fowler published a blog post on her personal website titled “Reflecting on One Very Very Strange Year at Uber.” The first paragraph’s stoic style read as though she might proceed to analyze evidence she’d collected from an anthropological expedition. “I’ve gotten a lot of questions over the past couple of months about why I left and what my time at Uber was like,” she wrote. “It’s a strange, fascinating, and slightly horrifying story that deserves to be told while it is still fresh in my mind, so here we go.”

What followed was much more than slightly horrifying: It was a working woman’s nightmare. Fowler recounted a series of anecdotes in which she was harassed, discriminated against, humiliated, and needlessly punished at her workplace. Her direct manager propositioned her for sex over the company’s internal chat. Another purposefully downgraded her performance score to block her from transferring out of his team so he could take credit for supervising a female engineer. She and her female peers were excluded from a department-wide order of complimentary leather jackets because “there were not enough women in the organization” to justify spending extra cash on a run that would fit them. All the while, the human resources employees she contacted were the opposite of helpful; they appeared to be plotting against her.

Fowler may not have known it at the time, but the patterns in her brief workplace memoir were familiar to women in the tech industry, and — as we would eventually discover — the world. Her memo was so upsetting that it managed to take down the company’s fratty CEO, intensify coverage of Uber, and as Maureen Dowd later wrote, pierce “the self-indulgent, adolescent Pleasure Island mentality of Silicon Valley.” Beyond that, Fowler’s Uber memo kick-started a wider reckoning around sexual misconduct in the workplace — one that, with the help of investigative reporting by The New York Times and The Information, began in Silicon Valley and spread to Hollywood, Washington, D.C., and beyond.

“The Susan Fowler story was a tipping point,” Dawn Quaker, the founder of the youth-development platform AUKERA Ventures, told me. “It was the first time I felt like people believed us. And it was the first time that the women I knew were really willing to stand together uniformly behind what was going on and raise their voice.”

“Susan’s post taught me a lot,” said Amy Price, a female engineer who asked that her real name not be used for this article. “She made an example of what behaviors she experienced as an engineer that I should recognize, too. Before that I had no idea how to identify it. I kept thinking I can find more ways to improve, I can change the situation. But it really reached a point where I didn’t have the trust and the environment to support me.”

A year after Fowler’s memo, 18 women I spoke to in the tech industry — including founders, community organizers, and employees at both startups and major companies — describe it as an environment that is still deeply divided over the issue of sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the workplace. Female workers have seen promise in the shared experiences of their professional and social circles, newfound alliances with sympathetic male coworkers, and technologists who are aiming to make it easier to report harassment. But despite the often-horrifying revelations of abuse over the past year, women are still faced with a culture that doubts the very existence of their problem.

The revelations set in motion by Uber’s toxic internal culture have presented an opportunity. The same community that channeled its talent toward delivering discounted razors and augmented-reality emoji now faces a moment of truth: the chance to disrupt sexism. How Silicon Valley ultimately comes to terms with these revelations — via workplace interactions, restructuring company culture, and legislation — will be a road map to understanding how to reform the other industries affected by this watershed moment.

The tech industry has long positioned itself as a model for the modern American workplace — the professional embodiment of a cheery, ultra-diverse college-tour pamphlet. Even in its nascency, Silicon Valley’s geographic location made it attractive; the sprawling suburban sidewalks were clean and safe, and worker benefits grew like grapes at a Sonoma County vineyard. Large corporations and well-funded startups served their employees three free (and eventually organic) meals a day, did their dry cleaning, offered unlimited vacation, and showered them in designer snacks, standing desks, and nap pods. Their holiday parties were casually headlined by the likes of Janelle Monáe. Tech companies were so overly equipped to coddle their employees — and so intent on disrupting the traditional corporate structure — that they overlooked basic workplace concerns like inclusion and discrimination.

The Cut’s Rebecca Traister recently observed that 2017’s string of sexual misconduct cases were “about the rot at the core of our power structures that makes it harder for women to do work.” No matter whether that workplace took the form of a well-funded startup, a newsroom, a kitchen, a film set, or a government-run office, it seemed that it was tainted with the unprofessional behavior of unscrupulous men. In the tech industry, where companies self-identify as progressive, moral stewards of the human experience, this lopsided power structure can be especially galling. When Fowler’s memo went public, it proved the long-marketed concept of Silicon Valley’s professional utopia applied only to a select population — divided in terms as clear as who got the free leather jackets in Fowler’s department. (Fowler, who recently had a baby, declined an interview request through her publicist.)

It’s only now that women in the industry are feeling comfortable enough to make these conditions known. Rachel Renock, a startup founder who shared a story of sexual harassment in The New York Times last year, experienced this shift firsthand. “When [the Times story] dropped, there was just a lot of the ‘me too.’ Maybe the hashtag wasn’t trending at the time, but I received tons and tons of emails and text messages from women in my life, and even strangers who were just saying: ‘Thank you for saying something.’”

But in the same way that Trumpian politics have pushed Democrats and Republicans further apart, the #MeToo movement has created a more alienating professional setting for women in Silicon Valley, according to the women I spoke with. “People are nervous,” Shannon Farley, the cofounder and executive director of the nonprofit accelerator Fast Forward, told me. “They don’t want their firm showing up in the paper. They don’t want stories of their employees showing up. It feels like there’s a lot of investigations going on, and not a lot of policy change happening. There’s just a deep sense of fear.”

Even proactive tech companies face an uphill battle, due in part to a lack of structure, human resource avenues, and, ultimately, trust. One female engineer who wished to remain anonymous told me that around the time Fowler’s memo was published, she and her teammates attempted to communicate their frustrations to their company. “But there was a lot of anger, and no one trusted the company enough to share a specific experience,” she said. “Management was having a hard time identifying gender discrimination, like, ‘How can you say this is true? Do you have a concrete example?’ It was a problem that the company and the female engineers had a chance to solve together, but our management actually ended up making it worse.”

The fear and mistrust among women in tech comes, in part, from the doubt of their male peers. “When we’re talking about disbelief, part of the dynamic is that these instances have been happening for a long time,” Rory Gerberg, a consultant who advises companies on how to prevent sexual harassment, told me. “What’s changing is that we’re now speaking about them. And so, women are beginning to reclaim and reconceptualize how we talk about what’s always been happening. But that hasn’t necessarily happened for men.”

This cognitive dissonance plays out in the workplace, according to Julia Shapiro, the founder of the attorney-hiring platform Hire an Esquire. “I’ve found in conversations with both investment partners and angel investors that people who were already aware of it are open to talking about it more,” Shapiro, who says that she’s met with hundreds of investors since she began fundraising in 2013, told me. “Then you hear people who were already bro-y say, ‘There’s not really a problem, stop whining.’ Unfortunately, like a lot of things happening in politics, it probably just further confirms people’s positions.”

Annie Brown, a Silicon Valley–based communications consultant who works with Y Combinator companies, says she frequently encounters pushback for even the most simple efforts to demonstrate a more inclusive workplace. “I would maybe talk about including more diversity in social media representation, or ensuring that there’s a female perspective on a certain project. I would be directly told: ‘I don’t think that’s an issue, I think you should look at a person for what they do and who they are, and not the color of their skin or their gender.’”

The persistent denial has pushed some to prove the sexual harassment problem exists via a language best suited for skeptical male techies: data. Following her high-profile gender discrimination lawsuit against venture capitalist firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Ellen Pao founded an organization called Project Include that, first and foremost, prioritized collecting company numbers related to diversity. “You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” Pao told Forbes last year. (She declined to comment for this story.)

Similarly, after the string of accusations against male founders and tech executives last spring, Woman Who Tech founder Allyson Kapin conducted a poll on workplace interactions. Kapin’s organization holds startup challenges for female-run startups in the United States and Europe, which frequently include mentor sessions with male investors. She said she was motivated to collect this data after seeing how investors were shocked to learn of sexual harassment within their world. “One of the founders had an email from an investor who said, ‘Hey, I would definitely invest in your company if you only had a beard,’” Kapin told me. “In Europe, jaws were dropping from the male investors — they just couldn’t believe the experiences that the women were sharing.”

Her organization surveyed a total of 950 male and female tech employees, founders, and investors on topics that ranged from being propositioned for sex during investor meetings to more subtle workplace microaggressions. The results, which were published in August, demonstrated that in all sectors of the tech industry, women experienced discriminatory behavior far more frequently than men. Fifty-three percent of women working in tech companies reported experiencing harassment, in comparison to 16 percent of men. Most frequently, this behavior came in the form of sexism, offensive slurs, and sexual harassment. Ninety-one percent of the women who experienced it said it took place at the office during the day. Of the men and women who reported harassment to HR or senior leadership, 68 percent were unsatisfied with the result, and 35 percent faced negative repercussions.

Female startup founders encountered similarly demoralizing behavior while meeting with investors. Forty-four percent of them said they experienced harassment — the majority of which came from potential investors — and of that group, 65 percent said they’d been propositioned for sex in exchange for funding.

“About the time when we did the survey, there was so much reporting being done about the issue and women coming forward and sharing their stories,” Kapin said. “I think that when you see a flood of people sharing these stories, people are still shocked and taken aback by it, but a lot of times I feel like they’re like, ‘Well, it just happened to only five people who stood up and shared this story. It doesn’t mean that it’s prevalent and it’s happening all over the sector.’ The stories become much more impactful and real when you’re able to pair them with data.”

Armed with both personal stories and data, women — specifically those who have a say in investment decisions — have begun to ask pointed questions about how tech companies plan to prevent harassment and create diverse teams.

“If you’re an investor and you’re saying this isn’t real, you’re living in an echo chamber,” Jennifer Wilcox, a partner at a Silicon Valley firm, told me. “Denial of this issue at this point is essentially malpractice.”

The Fowler memo was a momentous event for both the female engineers of Uber — who angrily confronted then-CEO Travis Kalanick at a company meeting — and for the larger female tech community as a whole. Many of the women I spoke to said that the week it was published was the first time they’d heard the leaders of their companies discuss workplace sexual harassment. For smaller organizations, the incident functioned as a catalyst for internal change on issues like workplace inclusion and hiring practices. But for more mature startups, it spurred panicked attempts to resolve any complaints that could lead to a public shaming similar to Uber’s.

Price said that, around the time Fowler’s memo was published, her former employer — a software startup — sent around a survey to gauge employees’ overall experiences working at the company. Through conversations with her female colleagues, she’d discovered she was paid less than their male colleagues, passed over for promotions, and undervalued in performance reviews (which were directly connected to the percentage of annual bonus an employee received). When the results of the survey came back to indicate that female engineers were far less satisfied with the company than their male counterparts, managers organized a meeting with them.

“It went very badly,” she said. “We tried to give feedback, but because it was the first time ever that we were able to talk about what happened to us, it was really emotional. The managers freaked out, and said: ‘We definitely don’t want you guys to feel bad,’ and, ‘We definitely don’t want you guys to sue us.’ And that’s where it went downhill.”

Management at her company backpedaled and ultimately abandoned the issue. As more time passed, Price said her direct supervisor frequently criticized her communication skills, belittled her accomplishments, and gave her tepid performance reviews without explanation. Because her company’s human resources offerings were limited, she felt she had no avenue to file a complaint against him. Instead, she resorted to confronting him head-on.

“I said, ‘I think there’s people being treated by different standards in this company,’” Price said. “He got really, really mad and said we ought to have a company lawyer present. He said, ‘If the head of managers was here, if the CEO was here, they would tell you this is not based on gender. We don’t have a gender problem here.’”

Not long after, a fellow female teammate “rage-quit” out of frustration for similar behavior from the same manager. Disillusioned that no one recognized the clear discriminatory behavior, Price left the company earlier this year.

“The common thing I saw was that leadership teams don’t learn to recognize how people feel,” she said. “They just decide what’s right and that people should go along with what they think.”

Even for companies that maintained professional, communicative work environments, it was significant for female tech workers to hear their leadership’s views on gender discrimination. One product manager at a midlevel Bay Area startup recalls how her company CEO immediately reacted to the release of the Fowler memo. “He made a point to address it,” she said. “He said he didn’t want someone to say, ‘Yeah, I worked at that company and I didn’t say anything because I didn’t think anyone cared.’ He was someone who was not as vocal [about issues of workplace gender dynamics], so I didn’t quite know where he stood. But it was clear that he was really torn up about this. And that really stuck out. He wouldn’t have made that statement had all of this not broken.”

To her, it was a gesture that demonstrated an openness she had not encountered while working at Google. Amid the confines of the company’s corporate culture, coworkers rarely spoke frankly about touchy subjects. She said the company’s tendency to worship its engineers contributed to a feeling of power imbalance.

“The attitude at Google is engineers are gods,” she said. “It’s made clear that the rest of the business is serving these incredibly smart engineers. So to have someone [like James Damore] who had those views, who looks at the rest of the world that way, it doesn’t surprise me. A lot of it stems from this, like, ‘I have more power than you, I’m better than you, and therefore I can treat you this way.’”

For workers in large tech corporations, advocating for office diversity can sometimes result in being subjected to attacks from immediate colleagues. Earlier this year, diversity advocates at Google accused coworkers of posting their internal conversations and personal information to alt-right websites as a way to silence their cause. Critics of the company’s diversity efforts also reportedly goaded the advocates into providing inflammatory statements, which they could then screenshot and report to HR for incivility. “Now it’s like basically anything you say about yourself may end up getting leaked to score political points in a lawsuit,” engineer Colin McMillen told Wired. In some cases, these problems are taking major tech companies by surprise. “Companies are starting to pay attention around the impact that online harassment and being targeted can have on their employees,” Elizabeth Lee, the founder of the harassment reporting tool Online SOS, said.

Some C-suite members have reached out to their female counterparts to better understand how to cultivate a workplace that is welcoming to women and minorities. For instance, Quaker said she has been solicited for advice from leadership teams at early-stage startups that want to build more inclusive companies. Jena Booher, a work psychology expert who advises later-stage startups on how to build more cohesive cultures, says that the intense media coverage of Uber is still fresh in the minds of company executives. “I got hired by a company just because I brought that to life in my pitch,” she told me. “I said, ‘Guess how many customers Uber lost in a day?’ I had all these numbers. And they were all giving me wide eyes and flushed faces, like ‘Oh, fuck.’”

Meanwhile, a handful of tech companies have sought to make reporting harassment in the workplace easier. Coworker.org, a platform that helps workers organize campaigns to improve their workplaces, recently helped Google employees go on the record to highlight efforts that sabotaged conversations about diversity. In July of last year, the nonprofit Empower Work debuted an anonymous chat tool that provides employees counseling on how to handle workplace conflicts. According to Empower Work’s founder, Jaime-Alexis Fowler, teaching a company how to adequately handle sexual harassment claims is only the first step in handling a workplace that may be teeming with microaggressions. Since her online chat tool launched, sexual harassment is the second-most prominent issue brought up by users, after fear of job loss. Even when a company helps someone in need address a problem, she says the user still grapples with how to feel comfortable in the aftermath.

“It’s not the Susan Fowler example of, ‘I’ve done all this reporting internally, and no one is taking action, and therefore I’m resorting to a Medium post, because no one is doing anything,’” she said. “[Having responsive HR professionals] is a move in the right direction, it’s just not addressing the microaggressions that still make it hard to come to work every day. We haven’t gotten to the other side of it.”

When entrepreneur Gesche Haas decided to go on the record about being propositioned for sex by an investor in 2014, she was worried what the consequences might be. “I did not know how journalists might decide to portray me or what the reactions might be like,” she told me in an email. “There was not a lot of precedent at the time that I went public.” The day the story went live in The New York Times, she both received an outpouring of support from male and female peers and was also subjected to online harassment. One person sent her a death threat via Twitter that read “I will cut your throat you fucking cunt.” Another person created a Facebook page that included Photoshopped pictures of her, which she said took a week to remove from the site.

For female startup founders in particular, speaking out carries both the threat of anonymous harassment and professional exile — a sudden inability to raise funds, score partnerships, or simply network. “If you’re savvy, you know that if you want to be a whistleblower for your career, you can do that,” Shapiro told me. “But your abilities to raise money or move up in an organization are over. If you don’t name names, you can talk about it. If you name names, you’re done.”

State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson has proposed an amendment to a California anti-discrimination act that would make it unlawful for potential investors to sexually harass entrepreneurs, but the legislation unfortunately doesn’t address more amalgamous consequences of an unregulated industry. At the end of the day, the largely male angel investors and firms have the discretion to decide who is worthy of their money based on whatever criteria they set. And after influential investors were named for hitting on women who sought their professional help, many female founders have seen fewer opportunities to pitch their company and wrangle investments.

Kapin says women in her network describe the fundraising climate — which frequently involves casual meetings over drinks, dinner, or evening gatherings — as increasingly icy. Her members have reported that they’ve landed fewer meetings, and when they do take place, male investors hold them during office hours, in a public setting, with another woman associate or partner present. “I don’t think [male investors are] doing it to be evil,” Kapin said. “They’re in uncharted territory right now. Frankly it’s alarming, because it puts women at a disadvantage.” Even the slightest reluctance to engage with women can have a serious impact on their ability to fundraise. Historically, they’ve only been offered a small portion of investment dollars in comparison to their male counterparts. According to a recent report in Fortune, female teams have received only 2 percent of all available venture capital in 2017.

Farley, who holds training sessions for female founders about how to stay safe and avoid uncomfortable fundraising meetings, says this trend has ultimately led to less fundraising success.

“The backlash has been hard,” she told me. “I’ve had VCs tell me they were applying Mike Pence rules” — a reference to the vice president’s self-assigned policy to not meet with women alone — “to dinner meetings.”

Haas said she isn’t able to gauge whether she’s landed fewer opportunities because she spoke out about being harassed, but even if that were true, she doesn’t see it as a negative side effect. “If someone does not want to meet me because of this, they are someone I wouldn’t want to be doing business with anyhow,” she wrote. “This way, they conveniently self-select themselves out.”

Renock appeared in the same New York Times piece as Haas with an anecdote about how she turned down half a million dollars from an angel investor who was sexually harassing her and her cofounder. Though the scenario was a “devastating” blow to their confidence in launching the business, a month later they were able to raise money through a more traditional venture-capital firm.

“The decision really came down to wanting to do the right thing, wanting to let other female founders know that they don’t have to deal with those people if they don’t want to, and this behavior is not and should not be tolerated in 2017,” Renock told me.

In early December of last year, Uber invited a handful of magazine editors and reporters to the New York Edition hotel for a press breakfast. The declared theme of the gathering was to promote the ways in which the company could make your holiday “stress free.” There was a room with a masseuse, gift-wrapping and winter-bouquet-making tutorials, and a spread that included chia-seed breakfast pudding. Uber communications staff, decked out in sequin-lettered shirts that read “Don’t stress, take Uber,” mingled with the crowd as the company’s new gregarious chief brand officer, Bozoma Saint John, held court in a festive tweed skirt, carrying a rose from the bouquet station as she schmoozed with the press. About midway through the affair, she clinked on one of the many mimosa flutes scattered across the room, and offered up a speech.

“It is six months exactly today since I joined Uber,” she began, still holding the rose. “Maybe the most complicated six months of my entire life. Clearly it’s been quite an eventful year for Uber.” Though she wasn’t there to offer the specifics of the company’s past year — the memo, the covert internal programs to avoid being regulated by law enforcement, the crude behavior and eventual firings of Kalanick and other executives, Eric Holder’s searing condemnation of the company culture, the fact that hundreds of thousands of users had boycotted the app in protest of its behavior — she at least appeared to acknowledge they were not good. All the while, she kept the mood light, weaving in non sequiturs about her young daughter and holiday decorations.

“It’s a brand new year, brand new start,” she continued,. “I am super thrilled about our new CEO Dara [Khosrowshahi], who — I certainly echo his sentiments. When we revamped our cultural values, one of the things is to do the right thing, period. It kind of feels full circle, because my first boss was Spike Lee, and he has a film — famously, Do the Right Thing — and I was like, ‘Ah, isn’t that funny how the world just comes right back around to you?’” — she paused here to grin at her personal flourish, and continued with a promise to hold herself and the senior staff accountable.

“Beyond that — all of the ‘Do the right thing’ — I want to do some fun things, too, you know what I mean? So why’s everyone so serious? I mean, look at my skirt.”

Her message, which soon transitioned to her vision of Uber as “the ride of pop culture” was meant to say: Let’s move on. (Through a representative, Saint John declined further comment for this story.) Uber’s tale of reform, delivered by one of Silicon Valley’s most charismatic messengers and backed by a new corporate education program, might be convincing enough to win back some customers. But a mea culpa and a nice marketing campaign are not enough to convince everyone. At least, not the female software engineer I spoke to who recently rejected Uber’s attempt to hire her.

“I sent their recruiter back a link to an article about the Holder report and how it really sounded like they weren’t making much of an effort,” she said. “I just hated Uber to begin with.” As a woman with sought-after tech skills, she’s acutely aware that she has the freedom to choose her workplace carefully, and she’s monitored the way her current employer — a prominent Silicon Valley startup — has responded to controversial issues over the past year. The day the Fowler memo came out, there were three separate emails expressing concern from company leadership in her inbox.

“Stuff like this is really important to me,” she said. “If I didn’t have a company that was receptive to these things I just wouldn’t work here.”

Last year, a Bloomberg report detailed sexual misconduct allegations against several employees of the NFL Network, including The Ringer’s Eric Weinberger, who was employed there at the time in question. The Ringer is conducting an investigation.

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