Why the Susan J. Fowler sexual harassment story at Uber rings true

Photo: Shalon Van Tine

Susan J. Fowler published a compelling blog post detailing continual sexual harassment — and HR malpractice — at her former employer, Uber. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has promised an “urgent investigation.” I analyze why her account is so believable and powerful.

Women claiming sexual harassment face nearly insurmountable challenges. Managers are more likely to be men. Management doesn’t want to rock the boat, especially if the claim is against a manager with a position of importance in the organization. Documenting the problem can be difficult; women who complain may be perceived as troublemakers or “difficult.” And to be fair, managers need some sort of evidence beyond hearsay to document a serious claim like this.

I’ve described how women who write clearly are more likely to get credit for their ideas. When it comes to an accusation, clear writing makes all the difference. And Susan J. Fowler is a clear and powerful writer. That’s why her charges are undeniable.

Why Fowler’s post is effective

Fowler’s original blog post is well worth your time. Why is it so believable? Because she does four things:

  • She tells the story in the first person, from her own point of view.
  • She explains things in chronological order, which makes the story easy to follow.
  • She focuses on facts, rather than emotions.
  • Each revelation builds her case, and it keeps looking worse and worse. As you read on, you think “Oh, this is bad. Oh, it’s really bad. Wow, it’s even worse than it looked.”

Here’s a key principle this demonstrates:

The more emotional the issue, the more dispassionately you should discuss it.

A rational, factual discussion of an emotional issue is effective, because those who sympathize with you get to draw their own conclusions, rather than react to your emotions. (In an argument, it’s is better to generate emotion than to share it.) And those who disagree are stuck arguing with facts; they can’t just call the writer a polemicist or a whiner.

While it’s not fair, this advice is especially applicable to women — making a factual, rational argument in writing is far more effective, even on an emotional issue.

Her are a few of Fowler’s passages that demonstrate the escalation of the problem at Uber:

On my first official day rotating on the team, my new manager sent me a string of messages over company chat. He was in an open relationship, he said, and his girlfriend was having an easy time finding new partners but he wasn’t. He was trying to stay out of trouble at work, he said, but he couldn’t help getting in trouble, because he was looking for women to have sex with. It was clear that he was trying to get me to have sex with him, and it was so clearly out of line that I immediately took screenshots of these chat messages and reported him to HR. [Fowler describes the first incident clearly and shows her strategy of documenting it through screenshots. She describes this as “clearly out of line” but doesn’t say how she felt about it. This is part of the pattern of sticking to the facts in her descriptions.]

I was told by both HR and upper management that even though this was clearly sexual harassment and he was propositioning me, it was this man’s first offense, and that they wouldn’t feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to. Upper management told me that he “was a high performer” (i.e. had stellar performance reviews from his superiors) and they wouldn’t feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake on his part. [This establishes the “first offense” narrative that becomes important later on.]

I began to meet more women engineers in the company. As I got to know them, and heard their stories, I was surprised that some of them had stories similar to my own. Some of the women even had stories about reporting the exact same manager I had reported, and had reported inappropriate interactions with him long before I had even joined the company. It became obvious that both HR and management had been lying about this being “his first offense”, and it certainly wasn’t his last. Within a few months, he was reported once again for inappropriate behavior, and those who reported him were told it was still his “first offense”. [Notice the use of active voice here. Except for the final “he was reported,” every action has an actor. This makes the story far more credible.]

Myself and a few of the women who had reported him in the past decided to all schedule meetings with HR to insist that something be done. In my meeting, the rep I spoke with told me that he had never been reported before, he had only ever committed one offense (in his chats with me), and that none of the other women who they met with had anything bad to say about him, so no further action could or would be taken. It was such a blatant lie that there was really nothing I could do. There was nothing any of us could do. [Again, mostly sticks to the facts. “Blatant lie” is more emotional, but is an accurate description of HR not telling the truth.]

I also requested a transfer. I met all of the qualifications for transferring – I had managers who wanted me on their teams, and I had a perfect performance score – so I didn’t see how anything could go wrong. And then my transfer was blocked. According to my manager, his manager, and the director, my transfer was being blocked because I had undocumented performance problems. [In harassment and sexual discrimination, there is what’s written down, and then there’s what’s talked about but not written. With this description of “undocumented performance problems” we see the conspiracy unfolding. (HR managers will tell you that in a well-run company, if it’s not documented, it doesn’t count — but that’s clearly not how it works at Uber.) This is also the beginning of Fowler documenting how her complaints were impairing her career advancement, which deepens our sense of dread — but again, she reports facts and lets us draw the conclusions.]

Performance review season came around, and I received a great review with no complaints whatsoever about my performance. I waited a couple of months, and then attempted to transfer again. When I attempted to transfer, I was told that my performance review and score had been changed after the official reviews had been calibrated, and so I was no longer eligible for transfer. When I asked management why my review had been changed after the fact (and why hadn’t they let me know that they’d changed it?), they said that I didn’t show any signs of an upward career trajectory. I pointed out that I was publishing a book with O’Reilly, speaking at major tech conferences, and doing all of the things that you’re supposed to do to have an “upward career trajectory”, but they said it didn’t matter and I needed to prove myself as an engineer. I was stuck where I was. [Changing reviews after they are complete is another warning sign. Things look even more ominous, but still the writing is unemotional and fact-based.]

When I joined Uber, the organization I was part of was over 25% women. By the time I was trying to transfer to another eng organization, this number had dropped down to less than 6%. Women were transferring out of the organization, and those who couldn’t transfer were quitting or preparing to quit. There were two major reasons for this: there was the organizational chaos, and there was also the sexism within the organization. When I asked our director at an org all-hands about what was being done about the dwindling numbers of women in the org compared to the rest of the company, his reply was, in a nutshell, that the women of Uber just needed to step up and be better engineers. [Now we see more facts — numbers — connecting Fowler’s problem to the company’s problem as a whole with hiring and retaining women engineers.]

The HR rep began the meeting by asking me if I had noticed that *I* was the common theme in all of the reports I had been making, and that if I had ever considered that I might be the problem. I pointed out that everything I had reported came with extensive documentation and I clearly wasn’t the instigator (or even a main character) in the majority of them – she countered by saying that there was absolutely no record in HR of any of the incidents I was claiming I had reported (which, of course, was a lie, and I reminded her I had email and chat records to prove it was a lie). [Fowler was clearly smart to document the problems.]

On my last day at Uber, I calculated the percentage of women who were still in the org. Out of over 150 engineers in the SRE teams, only 3% were women.

You can make an impact like this

If you have a personal experience that you believe reveals something about your company (or the world), learn from this.

  • Tell your story in the first person, chronologically.
  • Share facts, don’t scream. Let the reader bring their own emotion to the narrative.
  • Write in the active voice; make it clear who is doing what.
  • Build from small incidents and then paint a larger picture.

That’s how to move people. It works a lot better than shrieking and rending your garments. And it’s hard to argue with.

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  1. Thanks for this excellent analysis. One copy-edit: at the top, under the title “Why Fowler’s post is effective,” you say, “Why is it so believable? Because she does three things”–then you list four things. 😉