A former Uber engineer has come forward with allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination, claiming that management repeatedly dismissed her complaints, protected a repeat offender and threatened to fire her for raising concerns.
The accusations from Susan Fowler, a former site reliability engineer who now works for technology company Stripe, prompted CEO Travis Kalanick to announce an “urgent investigation” on Sunday.
Fowler, who worked for Uber from November 2015 to December 2016, outlined her allegations on her blog, including claims that a manager immediately propositioned her for sex when she joined, and that a director explained the dwindling numbers of women in her organization by saying “the women of Uber just needed to step up and be better engineers”.
“What she describes is abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for and believes in,” Kalanick said in a statement provided to the Guardian. He claimed her blog was the first time he had heard of her allegations.
“We seek to make Uber a just workplace FOR EVERYONE and there can be absolutely no place for this kind of behavior at Uber – and anyone who behaves this way or thinks this is OK will be fired.”
On her first official day with her team, Fowler said her manager sent her a series of messages over the company chat, explaining that he was in an open relationship and that he was having trouble finding new partners.
“He was trying to stay out of trouble at work, he said, but he couldn’t help getting in trouble, because he was looking for women to have sex with. It was clear that he was trying to get me to have sex with him, and it was so clearly out of line that I immediately took screenshots of these chat messages and reported him to HR,” she wrote.
Fowler said she expected a company of Uber’s size to handle the situation appropriately, but alleged that she immediately encountered resistance:
“I was told by both HR and upper management that even though this was clearly sexual harassment and he was propositioning me, it was this man’s first offense, and that they wouldn’t feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to.”
According to Fowler, she was told to find another team or stay in her position, with the understanding that the manager would likely give her a poor performance review and there was nothing she could do about it: “One HR rep even explicitly told me that it wouldn’t be retaliation if I received a negative review later because I had been ‘given an option’.”
This was not an isolated incident, Fowler wrote. On the contrary, as she met more female engineers in the company, she said she heard similar stories and that some women had reported inappropriate interactions with the same manager long before she had joined Uber. Despite repeated complaints, the women were allegedly told it was his “first offense” and that no action would be taken.
The man, whom she did not name, eventually left the company, she said.
Fowler said management later blocked her requested transfer to a different team despite the fact that she met all the qualifications and had a “perfect performance score”. Eventually, she said she was told that “performance problems aren’t always something that has to do with work, but sometimes can be about things outside of work or your personal life”.
Her organization within Uber was 25% female when she joined, but had dropped to less than 6% when she was trying to transfer, she said. When she asked about the declining number of women, a director said women in the company needed to be better engineers, according to her account.
In one of her final instances of “comically absurd” discrimination, as she described it, her organization had promised leather jackets for everyone, but decided not to order them for women “because there were not enough women in the organization to justify placing an order”.
When she complained, the roughly six women involved “were told that if we wanted leather jackets, we women needed to find jackets that were the same price as the bulk-order price of the men’s jackets”, she wrote.
Following her complaint about that incident, an HR representative said she was the “common theme in all of the reports” and asked “if I had ever considered that I might be the problem”, she wrote.
Her manager later told her she was on “thin ice” and that if she filed another report, she would be fired, according to her account, which notes that termination for filing a report would be illegal.
Fowler, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Sunday, soon after quit and joined Stripe.
In his statement, Kalanick said he has instructed Liane Hornsey, Uber’s new chief human resources officer, to investigate the allegations.
When Fowler left, she said that out of over 150 people on the site reliability engineer teams, only 3% were women.
While Silicon Valley technology companies have long struggled with a lack of racial and gender diversity, Uber is one of the few holdouts that has refused to reveal data on its workforce. Facebook, Apple and Google have all disclosed diversity statistics.
Fowler’s harassment and discrimination claims are the latest scandal to hit Uber following the viral #DeleteUber campaign centered on Kalanick’s participation on Donald Trump’s economic advisory council.
In December, allegations also emerged that Uber employees regularly abused the company’s “God view” to spy on the movements of politicians and celebrities.
Kalanick has previously faced backlash for his own sexist remarks. In a GQ interview, he made a joke to a reporter about “women on demand”, saying: “We call that Boob-er.”
According to one survey, 60% of women in Silicon Valley say they experience harassment.