It’s Not Just Uber

The dysfunction and harassment Susan Fowler experienced doesn’t just happen at Uber. It pervades our working lives.

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Susan Fowler’s recent blog post, published two months after leaving her yearlong stint as an Uber engineer, describes the company’s management as misogynist, disorganized, and juvenile. The narrative of her sexual harassment complaints and the company’s hamfisted responses, which ranged from ignoring her claims to blaming her for the problem, immediately grabbed the media spotlight.

Given that sexism in the tech industry has become a niche media beat and Uber’s founder and CEO Travis Kalanick already has a reputation for fratty behavior, this attention comes as little surprise. It has been a real delight watching a man who once referred to his company as “Boober” (due to the caché Uber gave him on the dating scene) trying to keep a straight face while promising to root out harassment in the workplace. Adding to the media frenzy, Fowler seems like a perfect victim: she’s white, smart, accomplished, pleasant, and responsible. Of all people, she should not be treated this way.

The familiarity of this story speaks volumes: a manager sexually harasses or otherwise bullies a subordinate. The worker reports the incident to human resources, but — surprise! — the accused turns out to be a high-performing employee, a nice guy (it’s almost always a guy) who made one mistake. Surely everyone should consider his interests too.

Despite the victim’s impeccable performance, she encounters impasse after impasse at work. It becomes clear that the manager has harmed several other employees. They also reported the misconduct, but his HR record remains spotless. The victim, still excited to work at such a prestigious firm and genuinely interested in her job, perseveres and even excels. Shrouded in its progressive managerial jargon about agility and enlightened thinking, the firm’s bureaucratic machinery is revealed to be moribund, toothless, petty, and vindictive. The worker realizes that the firm’s leaders, despite their incredible wealth and massive responsibilities, have the social skills and emotional intelligence of twelve-year-olds. Eventually another opportunity presents itself, and she leaves.

Have we not heard this story, in various iterations, a thousand times? It is a testament to Fowler’s writing that she imbues such a sadly predictable narrative with the urgency it demands. Nevertheless, sexual harassment represents only one aspect of the much larger problems Fowler invokes in her powerful and wide-ranging letter. Any kind of abuse based on difference is the natural outcome of a work culture founded on praising workers for competing against one another, making incredible demands on their emotional lives, manipulating their hopes, and playing on their economic anxieties.

Fowler’s letter highlights how employers take advantage of their employees’ goodwill, using it as an excuse to inflict or ignore poor working conditions. Generally, workers want to succeed. As an art historian, I encounter figures who strove to make the impossible possible: builders and engineers laboring over generations to make Gothic cathedrals; Benvenuto Cellini collapsing from joy and exhaustion upon successfully casting his magnificent 1545 bronze Perseus.

Employers, particularly prestigious, white-collar firms like tech companies, banks, and universities, rely on their employees’ internalized desire to achieve. Fowler joined Uber as a talented engineer eager to prove herself. She did not drop her tools and walk away after the first incident of sexual harassment. She stuck it out because she liked the work, wanted to do it well, and she thought she had found a way to remain at Uber without dealing with her harasser: “I ended up joining a brand-new SRE [site reliability engineering] team that gave me a lot of autonomy, and I found ways to be happy and do amazing work.”

She did what most of us probably would do in her situation: she endured. Fowler focused on aspects of the work she enjoyed despite her employer’s failure to respond appropriately to the reported misconduct. Even an accomplished worker with highly marketable skills like Fowler has little choice. Most people require a stable income to survive, and quitters forego the right to unemployment benefits.

On top of income, life’s practical realities make the sudden withdrawal of labor extremely onerous. Even if you could find a new employer right away, are you really going to disrupt your children’s school year, leave your community, break your lease or sell your house, give up the fringe benefits from your current job (in Fowler’s case, sponsorship for an advanced computer science degree at Stanford), and, — let’s say you do care about the work — abandon projects, colleagues, clients, and students after a few inappropriate messages and a flaccid response from human resources? Employers are banking that you won’t. Any amount of sexual harassment or bullying is unacceptable, but they know workers will put up with a fair amount of it because, as Elizabeth Anderson clarifies in her forthcoming book, Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Loves (And Why We Don’t Talk about It), the costs of quitting are so high.

One of the more perverse aspects of capitalist employment relations today is the impetus to please institutions that actively hurt us. In addition to the harassment, Fowler describes an organization that, either through incompetence or malice, frequently undermined its workers:

[P]rojects were abandoned left and right, OKRs [objectives and key results] were changed multiple times each quarter, nobody knew what our organizational priorities would be one day to the next, and very little ever got done. We all lived under fear that our teams would be dissolved, there would be another re-org, and we’d have to start on yet another new project with an impossible deadline. It was an organization in complete, unrelenting chaos.

Through it all, Fowler and her colleagues continued to like the work and occasionally found the pandemonium thrilling:

I was lucky enough during all of this to work with some of the most amazing engineers in the Bay Area. We kept our heads down and did good (sometimes great) work despite the chaos. We loved our work, we loved the engineering challenges, we loved making this crazy Uber machine work, and together we found ways to make it through the re-orgs and the changing OKRs and the abandoned projects and the impossible deadlines. We kept each other sane, kept the gigantic Uber ecosystem running, and told ourselves that it would eventually get better.

Many can relate to Fowler’s pride. Even in a generally toxic environment, genuine joy can erupt. By his own account, Cellini didn’t treat his workshop assistants well, but he recounts many of them rejoicing with him at the successful completion of Perseus:

I received visits from the several men who assisted me. They exchanged congratulations, and thanked God for our success, saying they had learned and seen things done which other masters had deemed impossible.

Surely many readers have similar memories of toasting with colleagues after meeting some impractical or absurd benchmark. In fact, triumphing in spite of dysfunction elicits its own pyrrhic pleasure. But such dynamics cannot be sustained and harm us in the long term.

An uneasy mix of desire and coercion runs through most of our working lives, as Kathi Weeks details in her book The Problem with Work. We want the boss to like us, but we also need the boss to like us (ideally, as much or better than our colleagues). Untangling the former desire from the latter economic necessity can be a bedeviling task indeed.

These issues of affability and competition affect all workers in gendered ways. For instance, sexual harassers will claim their victims’ politeness or sociability invited the behavior. Workers must constantly question their colleagues’ motives since competition poisons trust. Men and women who experience harassment may feel too humiliated to come forward at all.

In her letter, Fowler also points to troubling woman-to-woman dynamics. The human resources officer who most aggressively victim-blames Fowler is another woman. This distressing — but not altogether surprising — meeting occurred when women accounted for less than 6 percent of Uber’s workforce, down from 25 percent when Fowler started.

If you belong to a tiny minority within a toxic workplace, you might try to undermine fellow minorities and stand out as “the good one.” It’s better to be one of the guys (or whosoever the majority happens to be) than one of the weaklings who can’t hack it because of their biology. Even Sheryl Sandberg gave into this short-sighted, loathsome, and ultimately doomed survival tactic recently. Her Lean In enterprise promises to help other professional women, but when President Trump convened a “tech summit,” she flew to New York and sat two seats down from a man who bragged on camera about hurting less powerful women.

More than anything, the frustrations Fowler lays out demonstrate the need for a working-class politics that unites the whole working class: not just builders and manufacturing workers, but engineers, lawyers, graphic designers, museum curators, and human resources officers too. Fowler didn’t have anyone to approach who was accountable only to her and not to her bosses at Uber. She didn’t have union representation, only managers and the HR department, workers also trying to survive the company’s noxious culture.

Outside of hiring her own legal counsel and public relations firm (something most people cannot do), Fowler is left exposed. A smear campaign to discredit her in the media has already started to coalesce. Uber denies the company is behind it, but they have deployed or threatened to deploy this tactic in the past. This latest development underlines the fact that workers need protections from employers even after the employment relationship has ended, when they may no longer be under union purview. Workers can fight such oppression and win, but only if they’re mobilized.

Turmoil at Uber grabs headlines because it is a well-known company with a controversial CEO, simultaneously a media darling and villain. But the conditions Fowler describes pervade the economy. We need to reclaim our talent, goodwill, and desire to achieve from those who would use them against us.