I was tempted to name this article “To Uber or not to Uber” – that is the question. By now, of course everyone knows about this beleaguered company’s woes, thanks to all the dirty laundry washing in public, and the company’s skewed culture towards women. This isn’t anything new, even though nothing is actually written in print, we know from water cooler discussions about glass ceilings, lack of sufficient maternity leave, pay imbalances between the genders, and lack of flexible work schedules. What differentiated the case of Uber from the rest is the blatant sexual harassment that took place, to which management pretty much turned a blind eye. In the midst of all the depressing chaos, one brave soul managed to get out and speak up against the company’s unspoken policies.
For those who have been living under a rock for the past few months, the recap is this. Susan Fowler joined the company in its fledgling stages as an engineer and had the full freedom to choose which team she wanted to be a part of. Everything was fine, until a manager indirectly propositioned her over a company chat program. Susan’s response was to take a screenshot of the conversation and report it to HR, as anyone in her position would have done. However instead of the expected response, she was told that it was the manager’s first offense, and so he would be given another chance, even though it was very clear that it was a case of sexual harassment. All that was done was a gentle slap on the wrist and a stern warning, since upper management said that he was a star performer. As a result, she was given a Hobson’s choice and asked to find another team to work with, or else remain on the current team but be prepared for a poor performance report from the manager. Despite several attempts to escalate the issue, no further action was taken and therefore she decided to leave the team and join another one, as suggested. However, once she found out from other women engineers about similar kinds of transgressions by the same manager, she realized that HR had lied to her about it being his first offense. It became increasingly apparent that there was no intention by the company to take any action against this manager. Ultimately even though he left the company, the fact remained that the women had to bear the brunt of the company’s inactions, and navigate the crocodile infested waters on their own. As a result, several talented women engineers were either transferring out of the organization, or quitting, because apparently they were not stepping up enough. There was no surprise therefore, that when Susan left the company, the number of women engineers had come down to a dismal 3% from 25%.
What makes such stories even more unbelievable is that they are happening in the Bay Area, which one thinks is gender-neutral when it comes to skilled talent. Don’t get me wrong, I am not naïve and don’t live in a bubble, but this sort of rampant sexism that forces women to leave, while men encounter no such repercussions is simply unacceptable. It is not a big secret that women have always had to get the short end of the stick when it comes to pay raises, bonuses, promotions and more visibility within and out of the organization. Though none of these incidents or “policies” are documented, how many women have had the “take more responsibility” cards shoved in their faces? In a male dominated culture where projects and roles are decided over drinks at exclusive clubs or golf courses, how is a woman supposed to compete? She may not share the same back-slapping camaraderie with her seniors, but isn’t talent supposed to speak up for itself? Does that sound terribly idealistic?
Recently, a Google employee was fired for composing and sending a ten page anti-diversity memo titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” suggesting that women are less successful than men in the field of technology because of biological reasons. James Damore said that he was speaking up against the company’s flawed ideology towards diversity, and that work output and leadership significantly differed in men vs. women. While this assertion is blasphemous and utterly preposterous, is there some truth to what he had to say regarding Google’s insufficient efforts to bridge the gender and pay gap within the company – something that the company might have wanted to suppress? All diversity initiatives sound great on paper, but do they necessarily manifest into reality? Because from whichever angle you want to view it, less than a third, which is 31% of the workforce at Google, is female, and they are routinely being paid less than their male counterparts. This was reported as a result of a wage discrimination investigation.
All cases have not been so high-profile or have had such immediate consequences as Google, but there are subtle hints all over the workplace. The way a woman is interviewed or talked to, versus a man, or the responsibilities given to her, or the uncomfortable squirming when the talk of childbirth, flexible work hours or maternity leave come up. There is also the usual positional bias when it comes to hiring training & administrative staff, HR, marketing & communications and other roles that are more centered on the softer skills. The fact that the Google employee seemed to think that women would not be suited to more hardcore technical roles that are less people-oriented proves this point. Whether it was appropriate to fire him or not is a topic for another day, but safe to say, that it certainly made people look and give a second thought to an issue that is not addressed often enough.
The Venture capital space, which has always been traditionally known as a boys’ club, tried to buck the trend by inducting more female partners – case in point, Kleiner Perkins. When a senior woman partner tried to sue the firm for gender discrimination during her seven year career there, the case was carefully investigated and subsequently dismissed as it was without merit. For every Uber or Google, there is also a Kleiner Perkins, and so sometimes it doesn’t work in women’s favor to cry wolf each time. However, when compared to the rest of the world, the United States is losing the battle against gender equality. Other countries have seen a far greater number of political leaders, CEOs, scientists and high profile figures that are women. The U.S. is a great powerhouse of talent, opportunity and freedom, but unless these pressing issues of sexism and gender inequality are addressed throughout the board, from the bottom rung to the top level, there is little hope that any major transformation will occur. The problem has to be solved from the root, starting from girls getting equal opportunities as boys in school when it comes to math and science, thus ensuring a greater pool of talented women in the software/engineering/science fields. This is the only way we can hope for a workplace where such outdated ideas and arguments become defunct, and where such male conservatism has no place in society – neither at work, nor at home.