Women in the tech field are often defined more by their frequent exposure to sexism than their actual work. From men only asking other men questions during meetings to male bosses directly objectifying their female employees, sexism ranges from subtle to overt. A survey titled “The Elephant in the Valley” focuses on inherent misogyny in Silicon Valley alone. For a location that boasts progressivism, the results are staggering. Around 60 percent of women state they were victims of unwanted sexual advances, and 88 percent received demeaning comments from men. And if you think assertive behavior is the solution to discourage these acts, 84 percent of women have been accused of being too aggressive.
Enter Susan Fowler, a former engineer at Uber. She recently released a blog post detailing her “very, very strange year” with the taxi alternative company. She began working at Uber during a critical developmental phase and looked forward to making her mark in the engineering sector of this major company. She arrived on her first day only to receive messages from her boss propositioning a sexual relationship. Her reports were dismissed by HR, who even went as far to say she should consider transferring projects, since his performance review of her would likely be poor as a result of her report. After all, he was a “high performer.” Fowler was thus bullied into transferring for filing a complaint. This act alone is enough for a lawsuit. Sexism aside, “suggesting” (not allowing room for another option) an employee should transfer projects to avoid firing a different employee for misconduct is completely illegal. Fowler later discovered that more women received unwanted sexual advances from the same man. Then, she was denied transfer despite meeting all the qualifications for a transfer because the manager of her team wanted to keep a woman for show. Every instance of blatant misogyny listed by Fowler was punctuated with the lack of action from the company.
In fact, Vox published an article fittingly titled “An engineer says she suffered repeated misogyny at Uber, and few are surprised.” Despite the company’s prominence, it’s hard to say the scandal shocked many people. Sure, the article mostly refers to the fact that Uber is often under examination for misconduct, but sexual harassment should be prevented, not reported and scrutinized after several claims like this one and so many others. Despite numerous cases of gross misconduct, Fowler still managed to make strides professionally, but a job offer from another company lead to her exit from Uber. This event acted as a catalyst to Uber’s growing negative reputation, and caused further turmoil within the company as proved by the recent departures of several executives.
Sexism in the workplace is not always as overt as Fowler’s story. Besides the fact that women slowly disappear while climbing the corporate ladder (according to this Women in the Workplace survey, about 325,000 women work entry-level jobs while only 7,000 women hold top-level management positions), multiple studies prove that women are expected to do more than men with less acknowledgment. It is assumed that women will take notes in meetings, plan parties for coworkers’ birthdays and mentor new employees. Working women still cannot escape the gender-normative roles as the “mothers” of the office. Women in the Workplace also revealed that out of men and women who offered their time towards extra help in the company, men’s favorability was about 15% higher than women’s, and if men and women both declined to put in extra time, women’s likability was still about 12% lower than men’s. In short, men are rewarded no matter how much work they do (or don’t) put in while women are held to detrimental expectations.
In cases like Ellen Pao vs. Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Pao filed against the venture capital firm for gender discrimination. The trial detailed many seemingly small instances of sexism. Pao, along with her male colleagues, were accused of “sharp elbows,” yet Pao was one of the few who never saw a promotion. She was left out of male company vacations and dismissed as having “a female chip on her shoulder.” Although Pao lost on all charges, the 2012 trial caught the tech world’s attention and sparked conversation about women’s treatment in the workplace.
The question is: how do we combat occupational sexism, whether subtle or overt? Women, in every aspect of life, are expected to be polite and accommodating. Since these traits do not always match the inherent competition in the tech world, women suffer for not remaining complacent within their gender restraints. Both Pao and Fowler were criticized for “complaining” too much while in their predicaments, and assertiveness reflects poorly on women, according to their coworkers. As stated by a member of Uber’s HR team, “Sometimes certain people of certain genders and ethnic backgrounds are better suited for some jobs than others,” further proving that preconceived attributes of females are inherently unfit for tech. Whether women have “sharp elbows” or exhibit stereotypically feminine qualities, they are trapped in a middle ground where their voices remain unnoticed.
We can all start by creating awareness. It is easy for women to overlook and ignore casual (or serious) sexism in the office. However, it negatively affects the women who report and speak out against the difficulties they face. Because of the competitive and often toxic Silicon Valley work atmosphere, allegations of misconduct can be seen as an excuse, exaggeration or weakness. Unacknowledged sexism is desensitizing. Everyday occurrences, like asking men questions during meetings or expecting women to plan gatherings, creates an inherently male-dominated workplace. This, if ignored, can lead to overt sexist practices, such as denying women promotions or harassment. Both Pao and Fowler spoke out about their mistreatment, yet neither saw results. So why are women’s voices in the workplace denied or ignored? And not only by men, but fellow women as well? It is up to everyone to present a united front by not letting gender discrimination slide or evade consequences. Start by listening to everyone’s experiences. Acknowledge that sexism comes in all forms, subtle or not. If all people within the workplace take a stand against sexism, then the accusations will no longer appear insignificant and inconsequential but rather a detrimental pressing matter.
By: Sabrina Canepa