Uber investigation highlights remaining problem of sexual harassment in the workplace

In this March 15, 2017, file photo, a sign marks a pick-up point for the Uber car service at LaGuardia Airport in New York. Uber is vowing to head down a new road and become a more humane company. The promise made in a conference call with reporters Tuesday, March 21, 2017, comes amid a wave of ugly developments, including allegations of rampant sexual harassment and a video of a profanity-laced confrontation between the ride-hailing company's CEO and a disgruntled driver. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

In a call with reporters last week, three leading women at Uber – Arianna Huffington, Liane Hornsey and Rachel Holt – gave updates on the company’s internal investigation into allegations of sexual harassment by employees, their plans to make the findings public and efforts to combat the existence of a hostile work culture for women in the future. These specific claims came to light most recently and publicly in a piece written by Susan Fowler, a former Uber engineer, titled “Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year At Uber.” Fowler described not only instances of sexual harassment and sexist behavior by those above her in the chain of command, however, the company’s recurring inability to handle them seriously or hold the perpetrators accountable. Since, there has been much public backlash, some fallout within the company. Uber has brought former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in to help with the investigation.

“Yes, there were some bad apples, unquestionably. But this is not a systemic problem,” Huffington said, speaking about the sexual harassment investigation in an interview with CNN. While we do not yet know the specific findings of the Uber investigation, given recent statistics, other allegations, and some of the general well-known and well-established barriers facing women in the workplace, this comment seems to be a PR-move at best. According to a study of over 2,000 women aged 18-34, one in three reported experiencing sexual harassment, and 71 percent of those women declined to report it. In a PwC survey of over 25,000, 52 percent of women said they have experienced workplace bullying and harassment over the past three years alone.

This is before even mentioning the history of sexual harassment allegations in Silicon Valley in particular: from the CEO of Tinder stepping down for harassing his employees, the stepping down of the GitHub Founder, to Ellen Pao’s gender discrimination lawsuit. In a survey of over 200 women with over 10 years of work experience at top companies such as Google and Apple in the Silicon Valley area, 90 percent “witnessed sexist behavior at company offsite and/or industry conferences,” 60 percent reported “being the target of unwanted sexual advances from a superior,” and one-third “felt afraid for the personal safety because of work-related circumstances.”

As more women have entered the workforce in the late 20th century, we have come a long way in gaining awareness and fighting the issue however, notably, it wasn’t until 1975 that sexual harassment gained its official name in 1986, the court case Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson ruled it was illegal and a form of sex discrimination and 1991 with Anita Hill’s testimony in the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings that the issue gained true, mainstream attention. Today, while businesses and other institutions require prevention training, women still often fear reporting instances, whether of retaliation or that nothing will be done – as alleged by Fowler. Additionally, many seem to be unaware of the remaining scope of the problem, demonstrated in statistics aforementioned, and even what constitutes as harassment.

Sexual harassment anywhere and in any form is unacceptable. In the workplace especially, it is a purposeful, cowardly attempt by those who are insecure about seeing women in positions of power to put them down and hinder their advancements. The role of Ariana Huffington leading this investigation perhaps best highlights the pervasive and complex nature of this issue, given her longstanding advocacy for women in the workplace, as well as her close relationship with Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.

“No women [should] ever has to choose between advancing her career and completely unacceptable treatment,” Huffington said in the press call – the statement implying that sadly, many still do.


Marissa Piccolo is associate opinion editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marissa.piccolo@uconn.edu. She tweets@marissapiccolo.