Legal mandates rarely disrupt business objectives; they're largely viewed as an inconvenience delegated to HR

Uber has suffered a spate of bad publicity in recent days after allegations of harassment and discrimination from a former software engineer. 

In a blog post, Susan Fowler described being propositioned by her supervisor within weeks of starting her job. She complained to the human resources (HR) team. According to Fowler, the supervisor received a “warning and a stern talking-to” but no other discipline at the time because he was a strong performer and it was his “first offense.” Uber then offered her a choice: Transfer to another team or stay and risk a retaliatory performance review from the harasser.

Fowler also described a larger pattern of harassment, discrimination and retaliation. Others reported being harassed by the same manager, apparently contradicting what HR told her. Fowler’s performance review was downgraded, making her ineligible for a subsidized graduate program. When Fowler asked a director about “dwindling” representation of women in the division, he attributed it to their failure to step up and be better engineers. When Uber ordered leather jackets for engineers, they were ordered only for men. Apparently, there weren’t enough women to qualify for a bulk discount.

Fowler complained repeatedly. HR responded with escalating indifference, ultimately suggesting that Fowler herself was the problem.

After Fowler’s post went viral, Uber sought to distance itself from the incident and hired former Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate. CEO Travis Kalanick issued a response:

“What she describes is abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for and believes in.”

Fowler’s story – which Uber neither confirmed nor denied – is not unique in the tech sector, where women remain underrepresented. Women make up only 12 percent of engineers. These women face substantial headwinds. In a survey of women in the tech sector, 84 percent reported being told they were “too aggressive” and 59 percent said they were offered fewer opportunities than male counterparts. The majority also reported receiving unwanted sexual advances. And of those that reported the harassment, 60 percent were unhappy with the company’s response.

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