Charges of Sexism and Sexual Harassment at Uber Sounds Wake-up Call for SIlicon Valley

Explosive charges at Uber are shining a bright light on what has for years been an unsettling reality in Silicon Valley: Women here say they routinely confront sexism and harassment on the job.

On Sunday, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler claimed her prospects at the company crumbled after she complained about her supervisor’s sexual advances, sending shock waves through Silicon Valley and Uber, which at $68 billion, is the world’s most richly valued private technology company.

Diversity consultant Joelle Emerson says the allegations sounded a wake-up call. For the last two days, she has been advising tech executives on “engaging in specific actions to make sure their companies can learn from what happened here.”

“Companies that are committed to building an inclusive culture are not burying their heads in the sand on this. They’re taking it very seriously,” said Emerson, founder and CEO of Paradigm, a strategy firm that consults with tech companies on diversity and inclusion. “If you’re a CEO in Silicon Valley, and you haven’t yet emailed your whole company, or at least your leadership team, about this, you’re behind.”

Hours after Fowler published a blog post detailing her experiences, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick opened an investigation led by Liane Hornsey, the company’s recently hired chief of human resources, and former Attorney General Eric Holder.

On Tuesday Uber board member Arianna Huffington pledged to “hold the leadership team’s feet to the fire.”

“Change doesn’t usually happen without a catalyst. I hope that by taking the time to understand what’s gone wrong and fixing it, we can not only make Uber better but also contribute to improvements for women across the industry,” Huffington said in a statement.

For all of its bravado about changing the world, the tech industry is very much a man’s world, lagging behind other industries in its representation of and treatment of women.

Women use the latest apps and gadgets in equal, if not greater, numbers. They outnumber men at the top schools and in the workforce. But they are in short supply in Silicon Valley.

Seven out of 10 workers at major tech companies such as Google and Facebook are men. Women comprise 20% or less of technical staff. Few women reach the senior executive level or the boardroom. And they don’t fare much better as entrepreneurs. A sliver of venture capital funding goes to women and a small percentage of venture capital investors are women.

Since 2014, major tech companies have taken a big step toward facing up to the gender gap by publicly disclosing the demographics of their workforce. Uber has repeatedly refused requests from USA TODAY to disclose the demographics of its workforce. Kalanick now says Uber will release diversity numbers in coming months.

Studies warn that tech’s gender gap is only widening as women are being held back by stereotypes, biases and work environments that make them feel marginalized, unwelcome or even threatened.

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SOURCE: USA Today, Jessica Guynn