Uber ugliness unmasks Silicon Valley's bro culture

Recent revelations about sexual harassment and gender discrimination at Uber are the tip of the iceberg for a ‘bro culture’ run amok

Uber ugliness unmasks Silicon Valley's bro culture

The world was shocked—shocked, I say—to learn this week that female employees are routinely sexually harassed and discriminated against in Silicon Valley.

Susan J. Fowler’s blog recounting her “strange, fascinating, and slightly horrifying” year as an engineer at Uber unleashed a fury of condemnations, hastily chased by a maelstrom of mea culpas from CEO Travis Kalanick—who’s grown well-practiced in the art ever since last month’s #DeleteUber campaign began.

Terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Uber

Uber, with its history of flouting regulations and ignoring ethical standards, is the Valley’s made-to-order villain. “We definitely see Uber as a bottom-feeder of the tech industry when it comes to issues of fairness and equity,” Orson Aguilar, president of economic justice organization Greenlining Institute, told The Guardian.

Details of Fowler’s treatment at Uber are appalling. She documents an ultra-aggressive work culture where complaints about discrimination and sexual harassment were “addressed” by counseling the women to transfer to another team or expect poor performance reviews in future. “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,’” Fowler wrote.

Male “high performers” (otherwise known as “brilliant jerks”) were above consequences. Even after her supervisor made highly illegal threats to fire Fowler for reporting a manager, “both HR and the CTO admitted that this was illegal but none of them did anything.” And in text-perfect victim-blaming mode, one meeting with an HR rep began with her “asking me if I had noticed that *I* was the common theme in all of the reports I had been making, and had I ever considered that I might be the problem.”

Everything old is new again

But is there anyone in Silicon Valley for whom any of this comes as a surprise? “If you’re not hearing about the mistreatment of women [in Silicon Valley], it’s because you’re not listening very hard,” Huffington Post wrote ... in 2012. That was the year Ellen Pao filed gender bias and sexual harassment charges against venture capital group Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, then endured an avalanche of character assassination and mudslinging after speaking out.

“[Pao] has been tone policed. She has been slut-shamed. She has been labeled a gold digger. She has been accused of being untalented, amateurish, and unprofessional,” Quartz wrote at the time. “The message Kleiner’s lawyers are trying to communicate is clear: Ellen Pao is a lone voice trying to capitalize off an imagined gender problem in Silicon Valley.”

Only it’s not imagined.

Babes, boobs, butts, and beer

The gender problem in the tech industry goes far beyond Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella advising women to not ask for raises, “knowing and having faith that the system will give you the right raise.”

From “booth babes” at computer conferences to Kalanick’s reference to Uber as “Boob-er” because it helped him attract women to offensive tweets sent by tech companies in praise of their booth girls’ butts to a coding marathon that advertised “friendly (female) event staff” who serve you beer—Silicon Valley has a problem.

When Observer began reaching out to women in the tech world for their reactions to Fowler’s experience at Uber, it had no trouble quickly amassing 12 stories like Fowler’s, told by women who currently work in tech. “We knew this runs rampant in the industry, but we didn’t realize [stories of harassment would] be this easy to find it,” Observer wrote.

Why were they surprised? Newsweek did an in-depth report two years ago, “What Silicon Valley Thinks of Women,” and found the forward-looking technology community was stunningly backward when it came to gender relations. It described a misogynistic bro culture rampant with “blogs, screeds, letters, videos and tweets about threats of violence, sexist jokes and casual misogyny, plus reports of gender-based hiring and firing, major-league sexual harassment lawsuits and a financing system that rewards young men and shortchanges women.”

(Anyone still unconvinced that harassment exists should read tech journalist Sam Biddle’s blog, which provides “every f**ked-up text” from Tinder’s 2014 sexual harassment suit and starkly reveals “how ugly it can be to face a macho-dominated startup office.”)

Perhaps only in the “bro culture” could Gurbaksh Chahal, CEO and founder of adtech startup Gravity4, be captured on a home security video punching and kicking his girlfriend 117 times in a half-hour attack, then later assault another woman and threaten to report her to immigration authorities when she spoke of filing a restraining order against him—and be rewarded within the industry. In December Chahal was appointed as an adviser at a venture capital firm.   

“Paula Deen made racially insensitive comments and lost a show, lost very real money. Donald Sterling was forced to sell an NBA team,” Sarah Lacy told Recode. “And yet [in tech] we believe that frighteningly misogynist comments … are ‘boys being boys’ and that ‘they’re geniuses and this is what it takes to build a company.’ It’s really scary that there’s a company culture where objectification and violence against women is condoned,” she said.

(Lacy was the target of a smear campaign by Uber senior exec Emil Michael, who bragged about his idea of building a team of researchers to dig up personal dirt on reporters who were critical of the company. He remains a senior vice president at Uber.)

The elephant in the room

A New York Times article traced the fates of the Stanford class of 1994 and found many women with STEM degrees “simply bailed out.” Shanley Kane, a tech industry observer and founder of Model View Culture, noted: “[Women] are not getting hired, and we are not getting promoted, and we are being systematically driven out of the industry.”

Last year a study, “Elephant in the Valley,” asked what happens to the women who managed to stick it out. The survey focused on 200-plus women with at least 10 years of experience, largely in the Bay Area. The results were depressingly predictable:

  • 90 percent had witnessed sexist behavior at company off-sites and/or industry conferences
  • 88 percent had clients and colleagues address questions to male peers that should have been addressed to them
  • 87 percent had heard demeaning comments from their colleagues
  • 84 percent had been told that they were “too aggressive” (“At Company X we had a joke that there were only two reviews for women – you are either too reticent or you are too bossy – no middle ground,” said one respondent.)
  • 75 percent were asked about family life, marital status, and children in job interviews
  • 66 percent felt excluded from social and networking opportunities because of their gender
  • 60 percent reported unwanted sexual advances—two-thirds of which came from a superior. Among those women who were harassed, 60 percent reported the harassment and were dissatisfied with the results; 39 percent did nothing for fear of retribution
  • 47 percent had been asked to do lower-level tasks, like taking notes or ordering food, that were not expected of their male colleagues

The scathing “Open Letter to Tech”—written back in 2014—made clear how tired women in tech are of “pretending this stuff doesn’t happen.”

We regularly receive creepy, rapey emails where men describe what a perfect wife we would be and exactly how we should expect to be subjugated. Sometimes there are angry emails that threaten us to leave the industry, because “it doesn’t need anymore c**ts ruining it.”  

We have watched companies say that diversity is of highest importance and have invited us to advise them. After we donate much of our time they change nothing, do nothing, and now wear speaking to us as a badge of honor. Stating, “We tried!”

Note to the tech industry: Try harder.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.