The F Word: Let's Talk Feminism and Gender: The Working Women's Culture

(This piece is the first for a fortnightly column entitled 'The F Word: Lets Talk Feminism and Gender' that I am writing for The Weekend Express of News Express Ltd)

Earlier this week a former employee of Uber penned an article that generated a great deal of conversation both online and offline. Susan J. Fowler worked as an engineer for Uber and less than two months after leaving published an article on her site entitled ‘Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year At Uber’. The article detailed the struggles she had faced with “sexism within the organization”, primarily focusing on her tangles with HR for calling out and reporting sexual harassment and discrimination she faced, but also touching on the subtle variations on this theme including when she “asked our director at an org all-hands about what was being done about the dwindling numbers of women in the org compared to the rest of the company, his reply was, in a nutshell, that the women of Uber just needed to step up and be better engineers” (Yes, it’s 2017 and women are still being held to unfair standards than men are simply not). The support flooded in on social media, with resurrections of the #DeleteUber hashtag and calls for the company to respond and act. CNN reported that [Uber CEO Travis] “Kalanick said he had not known of Fowler's claims. He said he has instructed the company's chief human resources officer to "to conduct an urgent investigation into these allegations." Notably investor Jason Calacanis tweeted that the situation described by Fowler was “not appropriate” and Arianna Huffington (who joined Uber's board of directors recently), also tweeted out her commitment to investigate the allegations made.

This whole conversation made me sad and angry as these things are apt to do. Sad, because even when you look at the amazing strides the women and gender movements have made in the last decade or so, the fact remains that very fundamentals are still lacking in our day to day navigations of life. Angry, because I and far too many other women (in fact arguably all) who have ever been a part of the workforce have faced this sexism in varying forms. It is subtle, sometimes overt, ocassionally called out and more often, ignored and stomached as an occupational hazard of being a woman. Like the response one Facebook status gave to the hashtag #NotAllMen: “even though not all men hurt women, all women have been molested, raped or at the very least made uncomfortable by lewd behavior and catcalling by at least one man”. Hands up if you have faced this in one of your workplaces! Examples that have been shared with me include: if you were up for an increment/promotion don’t tell your boss you are pregnant or it will vanish; a general understanding that the women were expected to flirt a little if they wanted something done; superiors cornering you to try and kiss you; a qualified candidate being rejected for a position on the grounds that as a newlywed she was more likely to have kids and become a more of a liability than an asset. One person told me about official memo’s that were sent by management telling women to wear short skirts and makeup, sexual harassment from older MD’s that resulted in mental breakdowns and career slumps, and withholding of salary increments when they rejected superiors who propositioned them for sexual favours. This is just a small fraction of the responses I received in less than an hour of placing the request on my social media, the total ran into pages and flooded in for days.

People tend to ask – ‘how and why do women seemed to accept this misbehavior'? If you need to ask -  the answer is years and generations of conditioning to accept harassment, fear of your career being stilted/frozen, no action taken despite the emotional stress you put yourself through to call it out and fight against it, lack of options if you are forced out of the job (not everyone has a fall back or can afford to be unemployed) and being blacklisted as a 'trouble maker' within your industry. We can ask women and people not to accept it - but the systems must be supporting of people who do so. Hundreds and thousands of women put up with this in workplaces daily and they have no other choice. They need their jobs, and they need their mental sanity. As for the how - the same way women are almost desensitized to the daily harassment in our lives. The same way women have existed for centuries. All the incidents shared with me that I touched on previously are ones that went unreported and unchallenged. When I asked why – all or some of the reasons mentioned above were cited. Nearly all of them also repeatedly asked me not to share their names despite my initial reassurance that I would not be sharing any identifying characteristics. This is clearly cannot be billed as a scientific argument – but it does show clearly that this is a problem. A large and reaching problem.

Now why does all this matter? Why should we really care about individual’s personal issues at work? Firstly, this is not, despite arguments to the contrary, an ‘individuals’ issue’. This sits in a larger conversation about sexism, we can see repeatedly that the reporting of issues faced by people in the workshop compromise of a disproportionate number of sexual harassment/sexism claims by women. This indicates clearly this is a larger, widespread issue. Secondly, this is not great. It is not good. In fact, it is appalling that because of someone’s gender they are much more likely to face this kind of discrimination at their job, and suffer all the consequences that go along with it. It is the radical notion that women are people, and we should treat them fairly because it is the right thing to do. Just in case that isn’t enough to convince, don’t worry I’ll give you a more quantifiable reason. Fowler writes in her article “When I joined Uber, the organization I was part of was over 25% women. By the time, I was trying to transfer to another eng organization, this number had dropped down to less than 6%”. Companies who become noted by women for being sexism and having unfriendly environments are alienating potential employees thus limiting the potential talent that will work for them making them grow. This also affects the workforce of a country as a whole, less women will be likely to become economically active which is a development issue for the country in its entirety. This is of course very simplified and the issue is far more nuanced but the point remains valid.

This is not an issue that is new or even recent, it has been going on for as long as women have been a part of the labor force. Unfortunately, what will happen next is predictable – Fowlers story will be ‘investigated’ and acknowledged as an issue as long as it remains a ‘hot topic’ and then as the heat fades so will the interest in fixing things for the long run. Women who continue to suffer all over the world will see this, see the hate that Fowler is being subject to along with the lauding and weigh up the worth of speaking and calling out what happens to them every day. Those who may have considered sharing their own stories and create waves of their own, will decide that it is simply not worth it as nothing changes, until someone finally is brave enough to do so again. And then we begin the cycle all over again. This however doesn’t have to be the story – it can and will change. What it depends on is individuals from all levels of society – CEO’s, managers, employees and co-workers and the small steps they take. After all, ‘the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’.


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