On Sunday, a female former Uber engineer detailed her experiences of sexual harassment during her one-year stint at the multibillion-dollar company.The engineer, Susan Fowler, said she experienced sexual harassment and had reported it to Uber’s human resources department but to no avail. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has since said that he plans to investigate.
Unfortunately, Fowler’s experience with sexual harassment at Uber does not seem to be uncommon in the tech industry, with 60 percent of women in tech reporting receiving unwanted sexual advances, according to the 2016 Elephant in the Valley survey. Fowler’s failed attempt to receive help from Uber’s HR department also seems to be common at tech companies.
We’ve been hearing about sexual harassment for years in the tech industry, perhaps most notably beginning with Ellen Pao’s 2012 sexual discrimination lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. In 2014, now-former GitHub engineer Julie Ann Horvath detailed her experiences of sexism and intimidation and just last year, Amelie Lamont, a former employee Squarespace, alleged overt racism and sexism at the company.
Very little seems to ever happen to the perpetrators and, if taken to court, these cases rarely turn out in favor of the recipient of the sexual harassment, mostly because, even with evidence, sexual harassment can be tough to prove.
And because of gag orders from employers that prevent people from saying anything that could be disparaging to them, we don’t often get to hear the stories about sexual harassment. The conditions of severance payouts typically prevent recipients from relaying details of what happened during their time at the company, including any sexual harassment incidents.
In spite of their gag orders, people have come forward to describe to TechCrunch their experiences of sexual harassment at tech companies. With the exception of one source, I spoke to these people before Fowler published her post. In order to protect their identities, we have agreed to not use their real names, as well as not disclose the companies for which they worked. What I can say is that the three companies discussed below are public tech companies.
He’s married with kids, gets drunk at company events and [made] advances to women on my team. Joe
At one company, there is a “known problem” of sexual harassment that the CEO is complicit with, a male, now-former manager (let’s call him Joe) told TechCrunch. Joe said he repeatedly witnessed his female employees experience sexual harassment at the hands of high-performing executives at the company.
“I had multiple people on my team getting advances from [the head of sales],” Joe said. “He’s married with kids, gets drunk at company events and [made] advances to women on my team.”
On more than one occasion, Joe accompanied his female employees to human resources to report what happened.
“None of the perpetrators received any sort of punishment,” Joe told TechCrunch.
After the investigations went nowhere, Joe said one of the women on his team who had information on a person running the company’s sales team (he had made several sexual advances toward her) was let go and paid out six months’ worth of severance, instead of the relatively standard two weeks. Meanwhile, the head of sales was promoted to a C-level position.
The CEO of the company knew about the allegations against this person. He also knew that the alleged perpetrator had been forced out of previous roles at another company because of sexual harassment claims against him. But that did not prevent the CEO from hiring this person.
“The executives were complicit,” Joe said. “It was very Sandusky and Paterno-esque.”
One female manager (we’ll call her Amy), told me about an incident at a company event with an executive that “crossed the line” in terms of “words and physical actions,” she told me. The man put his arm on Amy’s leg, leaned in to try to kiss her and told her she should kiss him. That’s when Amy said she pushed him away.
Part of the problem is, the managers faced with having to deal with these incidents aren’t prepared. They don’t know how to have these conversations. Amy
“I absolutely removed myself from the situation I was in,” Amy said. “I reported it to our HR department after a couple of days and then also brought up an incident with the same person that happened to one of my employees.”
Amy was assured that his behavior was not tolerated, and was told that it would not continue.
“There was a change in behavior, but no disciplinary action that affected him,” Amy said. “Who knows if anything actually took place.”
Amy experienced another incident with someone on a different team. She said she reported it to HR but nothing was done from a disciplinary standpoint.
“I think one of the problems with this is people who are trying to do the right thing still feel uncomfortable doing the right thing,” Amy told me. “I mean that from the manager’s perspective. Both of these people who were inappropriate with me — their managers spoke to me, but as we were having the conversation, I could tell their discomfort with them having to be disciplinary in this matter. As the ‘victim’ of this, it was not reassuring. I was hoping to feel some restitution. I didn’t feel that and I didn’t see it amount to anything. I think part of the problem is, the managers faced with having to deal with these incidents aren’t prepared. They don’t know how to have these conversations. At the end of the day when brass tacks comes into play, what do you say? What do you do? Do you feel comfortable having a high performer being an HR liability? How do you make the judgment? I ended up feeling bad for the manager because they didn’t know what to say to me.”
In Joe’s year at this company, he said conditions only got worse for women. Another issue arose when the company was looking to hire a new C-level executive. The person the CEO wanted to hire had two outstanding sexual harassment lawsuits from his former employer. The candidate was ultimately forced out of his job as a result. Still, the CEO really liked him and hired him. Many people at the company expressed disdain about the hire, so the CEO fired most of those people. During his time at the company, Joe said this new hire engaged in “creepy” behavior with female employees.
“You’ve got these kinds of behaviors that are very rampant and people are not doing much about them,” Joe said. “But if they do, they’re confidential. It’s hard to know what the outcome is.”
At this same company, Joe says one individual, who has since been promoted to a senior-level position, told him that his way of managing “is to beat down people on his team so they’re controllable” and that “it’s easier to do that with women.”
Unfortunately, people are too fearful about speaking out against those in power, Joe said. And that’s for good reason. Managers have the power to make or break your career, as mentioned in Fowler’s expose on Uber.
“Indirectly, you can have cultures within Silicon Valley that create conditions for sexual harassment to be more acceptable than it should be,” Joe said.
In another incident at a different company, Joe said an executive made an advance on someone below him. The CEO heard about the incident and subsequently asked the executive to leave, but said he could stay on as an adviser.
“The issue I had with that is when those types of events occur, those people aren’t really punished for it,” Joe said. “And then they go get hired somewhere else.”
Another woman (we’ll call her Stacy), who has worked in the tech industry for over 20 years, says sexual harassment has been an issue since her first job in tech and “it’s still happening.”
Stacy told me one story about how one of her bosses at a company that has since folded used to make sexual advances at her, grab his crotch while having a conversation with her and “expose himself” at times.
The response that I got was that the leadership was never going to do anything about it because you’ll never find someone who has his technical breadth, so we all just have to deal with it. Stacy
“I reported it and the HR manager said she was well aware of his behavior,” Stacy said. “She said she knew all about the person, so I felt like I’d have some support, but the very next day, I was written up for being 10 minutes late.”
That incident happened back in 2002, but Stacy said not much has changed since then. At her current tech employer, she says she has reported someone from the leadership team to HR for inappropriate behavior, but “the response that I got was that the leadership was never going to do anything about it because you’ll never find someone who has his technical breadth, so we all just have to deal with it,” Stacy said. “And he’s a constant problem.”
Still, Stacy says she plans to stick around because she’s convinced that even if she goes to another company, “it’s going to be the same thing, so why walk away from my stock?”
These are just a few stories from the tech world that point to what seems to amount to an epidemic, and I think we can all agree that there are surely many more. If sexual harassment is this entrenched, what is the answer?
Amy believes that managers need to be better trained and educated around sexual harassment, because employees take their managers more seriously than they do HR departments, Amy said.
“If it’s your boss or head of your department leading that training and making that declaration (against sexual harassment) and making sure it’s clear and real for you in your day to day, that’s going to be more effective.”