Under Fire for Sexual Harassment and Gender Bias, Uber Hires Eric Holder

An Uber driver drops off a passenger in downtown San Francisco.  (Ericka Cruz Guevarra/KQED)

Uber has hired former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate allegations of sexual harassment and gender discrimination made by a former employee, who is a female engineer, in a public blog post on Sunday.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick told employees in an email yesterday that Holder would lead an independent review. Arianna Huffington, who sits on Uber’s board, is also part of the investigation team.

“What is driving me through all this is a determination that we take what’s happened as an opportunity to heal wounds of the past and set a new standard for justice in the workplace,” Kalanick wrote in the email.

It’s the latest effort by the ride-hailing company to assuage the growing anger sparked by the highly circulated blog, which was written by Susan Fowler, a former site reliability engineer at Uber.

Fowler wrote that she joined Uber in November 2015 with high expectations of working with some of the region’s most talented engineers. But disillusionment set in quickly.

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On her first official day working with her team, Fowler wrote that her manager sent her “a string of messages over company chat,” saying he “looking for women to have sex with.”  Fowler took screen shots of the chats and presented them to HR.

While HR acknowledged the sexual harassment incident, Fowler wrote they didn’t feel “comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to” because he was a high performer at the company.

Fowler also wrote that despite her perfect performance marks, her career advancement was blocked because of her gender. She was not allowed to transfer teams and work on different projects, which is important to an engineer's upward career trajectory. Fowler wrote that her manager blocked her transfer to keep his diversity numbers up.

“I overheard him boasting to the rest of the team that even though the rest of the teams were losing their women engineers left and right, he still had some on his team,” Fowler wrote.

Fowler claims that when she joined Uber, women engineers made up 25 percent of the department's workforce. When she left Uber after a year, Fowler said that number dropped to 6 percent, with women transferring out of the engineering department or leaving Uber altogether.

In his staff email, Kalanick said women make up 15 percent of Uber’s engineering, product management and scientist roles, but didn’t break out numbers for individual departments.

Many tech companies say their lack of racial and gender diversity is because there aren’t enough qualified, diverse candidates to hire. But Fowler's story illustrates that other forces are also at work, said Jo-Ellen Pozner, an associate professor of management and ethics at Santa Clara University.

“The problem might not in fact be that there are not qualified people to hire,” Pozner said. “But rather that they are so mistreated and so uncomfortable in the workplace that it’s hard to retain them.”

Fowler quit Uber and in January joined Stripe, another tech company. After Fowler posted her blog on Sunday, Kalanick responded quickly on Twitter, describing her account as “abhorrent and against everything we believe in.”