The assertion by a former Uber employee that she was sexually harassed by her supervisor and then ignored by the human resources department has brought much-needed attention to a continuing problem in the tech industry - sexual harassment and sexual discrimination.
On February 19, Susan Fowler, a former engineer at Uber published a blog recounting her experience at Uber, including being sexually propositioned by her boss. While this is certainly a disturbing set of facts, perhaps more troubling is Ms. Fowler's description of what happened when she took her complaint to the human resources department. Ms. Fowler was advised that, while she clearly had been the victim of sexual harassment, her boss would only be given a warning despite multiple complaints from different women, because he was "a high performer." She was also advised that she (and not the harasser) could change jobs or alternatively that she would need to learn to deal with the harassment and the likelihood that she would be retaliated against for complaining.
Ms. Fowler's now widely read post has resulted in numerous women working in the tech community sharing their own similar experiences. The LA Times reported that a 2015 survey had found that 60% of women in the tech industry have experienced unwanted sexual advances from a colleague and that a 2008 study found that 50% of women working in the tech industry will leave an employer at some point in their career because of a hostile work environment.
Many tech companies hold themselves out to be very employee focused and so it is particularly disappointing that sexual harassment and sexual discrimination are pervasive among tech-based employers. Equally as disappointing is the practice of human resources departments turning a blind eye to complaints about employees if they are high performing.
Ms. Fowler's blog has raised awareness at Uber, including prompting an independent investigation that will be conducted by former US Attorney General Eric Holder. Ms. Fowler's story also highlights why so many victims of sexual harassment remain silent. While sexual harassment is clearly illegal, some HR departments punish the victim instead of the perpetrator.
It is important for women to know that Title VII and most state civil rights acts, including the Iowa Civil Rights Act, prohibit conduct like Uber's. Complaints of sexual harassment must be adequately investigated when reported and retaliation against an employee who makes a complaint is explicitly prohibited. Women who are being sexually harassed or who have suffered retaliation as a result of making a complaint about sexual harassment and are concerned about making a complaint should contact an employment lawyer to discuss their options.