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Why women in tech aren’t surprised by the Uber saga

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Susan Fowler’s story is ‘practically textbook’

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In the days following the publication of Susan Fowler’s blog post about Uber, the internet exploded with tweets and blog posts from other women in tech. Some shared their personal observations directly with me as well. There was, appropriately, a fair amount of indignation; the claims Fowler made, and the subsequent stories that emerged about corporate culture at Uber, are so egregious that it’s hard to believe it was all kept under wraps for this long.

But there’s another sentiment being expressed, too, one that stands out to me: That gender discrimination is all too common in tech. That something similar had happened to them. That they weren’t surprised.

Imagine reading a woman’s story about being denied a team reward because she’s in the female minority, or a story about a sexual harassment complaint being dismissed by an HR manager, and thinking, “That sounds about right.” Or reading a follow-up story in The New York Times about inappropriate groping at work parties and saying to yourself, “That’s not surprising.”

It’s not surprising, and it hasn’t been surprising for a long time. In the past few years alone, a series of high-profile incidents have roiled the tech industry. There was the Ellen Pao gender discrimination lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins, a case Pao ultimately lost, but not without a landmark trial that shined a light on some of the more questionable treatment of women in venture capital. There was the lawsuit filed by Whitney Wolfe against Tinder, her former employer, after its chief marketing officer (and Wolfe’s former flame) sent her series of horribly misogynistic and racist text messages. There was Gamergate.

“I honestly don’t know what would have happened had someone written this blog post as an employee at another company,” said Joelle Emerson when I asked her whether some women in tech might be inured to Fowler’s story because it’s Uber, or because it’s a much larger women-in-tech problem. Emerson is a former employment lawyer who now runs Paradigm, a consulting firm that helps some of the world’s top tech companies combat internal bias. She’s been outspoken about what she sees as Silicon Valley’s obsession with meritocracy, noting that “the irony of it is that organizations that believe themselves to be meritocratic are actually more likely to be influenced by bias.”

Still, Emerson concluded, “I think what we know for sure is that this isn’t an Uber-specific problem.” There are obvious forms of gender discrimination, she pointed out, but also much subtler ones as well.

There is, at the root of it, the obvious issue of a lack of representation of women in high-tech roles. According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, which in 2016 put out a comprehensive report based on BLS data from the year prior, women made up only a quarter of computing-related jobs that year — a percentage that has been on the decline since 1991, when it reached a high of 36 percent.

But the problems extend beyond the “pipeline” excuse; it’s not like challenges go away once women land tech jobs. A 2014 Glassdoor survey of 25 tech companies showed that the career satisfaction of technical men outweighed the career satisfaction of their female counterparts. Other data have shown that more than fifty percent of women in science, tech, and engineering leave their jobs at what is normally a mid-career point. Why are they leaving? “Workplace experiences emerge as one of the most significant differences between women who stay in computing and those who leave,” NCWIT reports.

Over the past few years major tech companies like Apple, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, eBay, Amazon, and Microsoft, have started releasing annual diversity reports. Some younger companies, like Slack, Pinterest, and Airbnb, have also gotten on board. At companies like Apple and Google, the percentage of women in the global workforce, which includes more than just technical jobs, hovers at around 30 percent.

Uber, of course, hurried to say it would be releasing its own diversity report in the coming months, after Fowler’s blog post went viral.

On one hand, these diversity reports show an encouraging willingness to acknowledge how homogenous the offices of the biggest tech companies really are. It’s a start. And, even single-digit increases at companies with thousands of employees can be really significant.

But, again, simply boosting your numbers is one thing. Promoting women to the next level is another. Treating women like equal humans, including them in important meetings and events, and letting them establish new rules is another. Not talking down to them is another. Appropriately responding to complaints — while understanding that a complaint is not “complaining” — is another. Not assuming they’re “less technical” is another. Not assuming they’re doing less work because they also have a family, is another.

Only when that basic respect is achieved will the bigger problems, the uber problems, be fixed — or not exist at all. And wouldn’t that just be the best surprise of all?