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Uber Shakeup Shows a Shift Away from Sexist Techbro Culture

Jun 19th, 2017 6:00am by
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As a woman in IT (#WIT) for 30 years, I am still a bit stunned by the extraordinary story that unfolded at Uber last week. What is happening is a nothing less than a crack in the mantle of the toxic techbro culture systemic in Silicon Valley and everywhere else.

The ride-hailing company and its CEO Travis Kalanick have been beleaguered in recent months in the wake of Susan Fowler’s now-famous blog post of last February detailing a toxic, sexist culture had forced her to leave Uber. Fowler’s attempts to work within Uber’s company structure were ignored, but once the post went viral, Kalanick professed himself shocked. The company hired Eric Holder, former U.S. Attorney General, and Tammy Albarrán to conduct an independent review regarding around the specific issues raised by Fowler, as well as provide an assessment of the diversity and inclusion at Uber.

No one I knew expected anything substantive to come of this investigation. I had no doubt they would find plenty and that some people would be scapegoated then fired. These men would then go on to find other jobs in top Silicon Valley companies. History shows us that a senior official can be investigated, allowed to resign and re-hired by another top Silicon Valley company with his prestige still intact (*cough* Mark Hurd *cough*).

And soon, 20 employees were fired, right on track. Uber fired, or rather accepted the resignation of, Emil Michael, who was the senior vice president of business, as well as a friend of Kalanick. The following day Kalanick himself announced a leave of absence.

Holder’s 13-page report recommended sweeping but common-sense changes to the company, including changing the reporting structure, training for managers, and more resources for the recently-added office of diversity. Uber board member Arianna Huffington led an all-hands meeting and announced that the company would be adopting all of the recommendations from the report.

Reading the list of recommendations left me thinking how did they even get this far as a company. Did it need to recommend limiting the amount of alcohol consumption during work hours?

Tuesday held more surprises. Board member David Bonderman, a partner at TPG Capital, a VC firm invested in Uber, cracked a sexist joke DURING the all-hands meeting. Twitter lit up with scorn. Hours later, Bonderman issued an apology of sorts, to all Uber employees who were offended by the remark. Twitter lit up again, noting that he only seemed sorry that some people were offended.

Hours after that, he officially resigned from the board.

So Very Pervasive

As someone who has lived with the misogyny of the IT culture for years, it is hard to overstate the impact of this event. When men in power are asked to start paying attention to what they say and start suffering consequences for sexist and demeaning behavior — now that is an amazing thing.

I had lunch with Fowler at the Microservices Summit in San Francisco a few weeks before her blog post hit. She gave the last presentation of the summit at 4:00, based on her a popular O’Reilly book. When all that was between the attendees and beer was her talk, they not only stayed to the end but engaged in a lively and lengthy Q&A session. She’s a brilliant engineer.

Fowler was also the perfect knight in shining armor for this role. Her blog post that set off this storm was written in a breezy, non-confrontational style. I felt, reading it, that I was peeking in on a quick post she’d written for close friends, not an angry screed about feminism. Which is exactly what made it palatable for a large audience to stick with reading it until the end.

The post went viral and Twitter loved it. The power of social media is something we are still figuring out, but to me, this was Twitter at its best, women supporting each other, saying “yes, me, too!” I was riveted, and joined that conversation, supporting the voices of women sharing our experiences. Every #WIT I know personally has experienced this sexism in some form or another.

Every. Single. One.

The problem has been that we don’t talk about this behavior because it gets us nowhere, as Fowler’s post points out. Men, even normally supportive men, say things like “I can’t believe this is true because I’ve never heard about it before.” Even my ultra-supportive boyfriend said to me in a snarky tone, “Really, every single one? What happened to you?” So I pulled out a couple of stories — not even the worst ones — and he sat quietly and said, “I’m sorry. I had no idea. Why didn’t you tell me this before?”

And this is what gives me hope. There are certain contingents of men who are sexist assholes, but I don’t concern myself with them. I personally believe that most men want to do the right thing, but our culture, both in and out of tech, have not given them the tools to be supportive allies, or at least not jerks.

Do I think the techbro culture has been stopped dead in its tracks? Of course not. This is not even the end game.

But things are changing. Men are joining in, calling out sexist bullshit, which I find encouraging. I have long held that change will only come when men start holding other men to account for their behavior.

So this week is a huge step in the right direction.

We’ve broken through the outer wall of the fortress. But there is still the castle to dismantle. These lawbreakers have to be held accountable.

So there’s more work to do. But let’s take a moment to appreciate how far we’ve come.

Feature image via Pixabay.

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