A prominent engineer named Susan Fowler has penned an explosive blog post describing her year as an Uber employee. She alleges that between her hiring in November 2015 and her departure in January 2017, she experienced a truly remarkable string of sexist incidents that — if proven — would give her grounds for a sexual harassment lawsuit, several times over.
Fowler alleges that on her first day on her new team, her boss propositioned her for sex over company chat. When she reported the incident to HR, she says, he did not lose his job because it was his first offense and the man was a “high performer.” She says she later discovered this was untrue: Other women had reported the same manager to HR for similar offenses.
It didn’t stop there. She says she experienced several more sexist incidents and reported them. When she pointed out that there were few women engineers in her part of the company, Fowler, alleges, an HR representative replied with “a story about how sometimes certain people of certain genders and ethnic backgrounds were better suited for some jobs than others, so I shouldn't be surprised by the gender ratios in engineering.” She says her manager threatened to fire her if she kept reporting problems to HR. At this point, she left the company.
In a Sunday email statement, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick vowed to investigate Fowler’s charges: "What she describes is abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for and believes in. It's the first time this has come to my attention so I have instructed Liane Hornsey our new Chief Human Resources Officer to conduct an urgent investigation into these allegations.” He vowed that if Fowler’s allegations are confirmed, the people responsible would be fired.
It’s the latest bad news for a company that has long had a reputation for having a toxic, fratty corporate culture. In a 2014 GQ profile, Mickey Rapkin wrote of Kalanick that “when I tease him about his skyrocketing desirability, he deflects with a wisecrack about women on demand: Yeah, we call that Boob-er.”
Last year, BuzzFeed reported that the company’s internal customer service database included thousands of messages from customers with the phrases “sexual assault” or “rape.” Uber disputed these statistics, arguing that most were false positives — involving people with names like “Don Draper,” for example — and said that customers had actually reported fewer than 170 incidents of sexual assault and five rape claims between December 2012 and August 2015.
Then in June, Uber announced a $3.5 billion investment from the government of Saudi Arabia. This raised eyebrows because the kingdom has one of the world’s worst records when it comes to respecting women’s rights. Saudi Arabia is infamous for refusing to allow women to drive and for limiting their ability to go out in public without a male chaperone. The regime once punished a rape victim for being alone with a male non-relative.
Of course, none of this tells us whether it’s true that Uber has a rampantly sexist workplace culture. But it does suggest that Kalanick hasn’t exactly made gender equality a high priority for his company.
Uber has a big reputation problem
Some companies work hard to cultivate a reputation for doing the right thing as a matter of principle. Google, for example, has a much-mocked unofficial slogan of “don’t be evil.” Uber, in contrast, has developed an ethos as a company that’s willing to win at any cost.
In the early years, when Uber was a plucky underdog trying to break up powerful taxi cartels, many people found this ethos charming. But as the company grew to dominate the taxi market, it began to seem menacing. This came to a head in 2014, when a series of stories reinforced the impression of Uber as a reckless company with little regard for the rights of its customers, drivers, and employees.
That year, Uber was accused of spying on its own customers. An Uber executive threatened to dig up dirt on journalists. And in Lyon, France, Uber ran a promotion offering to pair customers up with drivers who were “Avions de chasse” — a phrase that literally refers to fighter jets but is slang for attractive women.
In each of these cases, Uber backpedaled in the wake of a public backlash. Kalanick, for example, tweeted out an apology for his executive’s comments about journalists — though the executive is still an Uber executive. But there’s been little effort to raise the company’s ethical standards more broadly.
There’s also been a long-running controversy between Uber and its thousands of drivers, many of whom are upset about the service’s low pay and lack of due process. Rather than trying to address these concerns proactively, Uber waited until drivers filed a massive lawsuit, then made some concessions to drivers in the settlement.
In short, Uber hasn’t prioritized taking proactive steps to dispel the impression that it’s a company with no real moral compass. And a long history of problems has colored how people see each new Uber controversy.
This reputation hurt Uber a few weeks ago when the company disabled surge pricing in New York during a spontaneous protest against Donald Trump’s immigration policies at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. Taxi drivers were refusing to pick up passengers from JFK in solidarity with the protesters, and critics interpreted Uber’s move as an effort to break the strike. (This made no sense, since disabling surge pricing meant fewer Uber drivers going to JFK.)
But years of controversy have conditioned many people to believe the worse about Uber, so a #DeleteUber campaign quickly gained traction.
Now Uber is facing a similar dynamic with Fowler’s sexual harassment allegations. Few people are willing to give the company the benefit of the doubt, because the allegations sound like exactly the kind of thing that would happen at a company like Uber, with investors like Saudi Arabia and a CEO like Travis Kalanick.