This week’s question comes from Maria in San Francisco, who writes:
Q: “Chris, Susan Fowler’s account of her harassment at Uber seems far too typical of what women in tech experience. Why is it that so many women in tech are discriminated against? What should we do?”
A: Thank you, Maria, for your timely question. For those who are not aware, on Feb. 19, Susan Fowler alleged in a detailed and lengthy account on her personal blog that she had been discriminated against and sexually harassed by her direct supervisor when she worked as a software engineer at Uber. Fowler reported the harassment to Uber’s human resources department, which took no action. In response to the public outcry generated by Fowler’s blog, Uber announced it would undertake an internal investigation.
Maria, I agree Fowler’s account mirrors the experiences of many women in tech. Nearly a decade ago, the Center for Work-Life Policy released “The Athena Factor,” a groundbreaking study on women in science, engineering and technology. As their male colleagues’ careers were advancing, the report found, women start to stall in their careers, and many became “marginalized by hostile macho cultures.” After 10 years of work experience, the researchers reported that 41 percent of women in tech left the tech industry, compared with just 17 percent of men. Recent surveys find women continue to leave the tech industry mid-career at alarming rates.
Women encounter high barriers to entering and advancing in the tech industry due to rampant sexism.
Negative stereotypes concerning the abilities of women engineers held by senior managers, severe isolation and exclusion of women from social and networking opportunities, a dearth of women mentors, opaque career paths and unwanted sexual advances are among the obstacles most often reported by women. In addition, tech firms routinely fail to hold their top performers accountable for engaging in sexual harassment.
Maria, you ask what women in tech should do. Know your rights and object if they are violated. Gender discrimination was once pervasive in the legal, medical and other professions. That is no longer true because courageous women in these fields stepped forward and asserted their legal rights. I believe women in tech must do the same.
Under California law, employers must provide workplaces that are free of sexual harassment, which is defined as unwanted sexual advances or visual, verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Further, the law prohibits retaliation for reporting a good faith belief of harassment or discrimination.
There are two primary types of employment harassment: quid pro quo harassment and hostile work environment. Quid pro quo harassment refers to when submission to sexual conduct is demanded or made a condition of employment. What Fowler alleged constitutes quid pro quo harassment.
A hostile work environment occurs when an employee experiences severe or pervasive offensive conduct that interferes with his or her ability to perform a job. The offensive conduct can take many forms including leering, sexual gestures, comments of sexual nature, suggestive or obscene letters and touching or blocking movements. Here are the steps I recommend that people experiencing sexual harassment take:
First, create a record of the harassment. Save any relevant email or text messages. Create a written record or timeline of what occurred.
Second, report the harassment to your company. Send an email or write a note to the harasser’s supervisor and head of HR. Look in your employee handbook to see who is designated to receive complaints and make sure that they receive a copy, too. Keep notes of what you send and who you speak to. Under the law, the company is obligated to conduct a good faith investigation of the complaint and to take prompt action to stop the harassing conduct.
Third, the employee may file a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. The DFEH attempts to help the parties voluntarily resolve their dispute. If the DFEH finds sufficient evidence of discrimination and settlement efforts fail, the DFEH may file a lawsuit against the company on the employee’s behalf.
Finally, the employee should consider filing a lawsuit, with the assistance of a lawyer, against the person who harassed her and company. The employee must first ask for a right-to-sue letter from the DFEH that will allow her to proceed with a private, civil, legal action against the person who harassed her and company.
Do not delay. The deadline for filing the lawsuit is within one year of the harassment. Most trial attorneys will provide an initial consultation free of charge.