Uber Isn’t Unique When It Comes to Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
Shock, dismay, anger – my social media was buzzing about the personal accounts of two former Uber employees detailing their stories of the gender discrimination and sexual harassment they faced at the prestigious tech company. But it was an all too familiar story for me: the sexually inappropriate advances, the silent bystanders, a vindictive manager, the victim-blaming, a complicit workplace culture of gender inequality, and an employer’s lack of effective actions to address or prevent the problem.
At FUTURES, I’m on a team that leads a national project and resource center called Workplaces Respond to Domestic and Sexual Violence. We provide technical assistance and resources to employers, workers’ rights groups, labor unions, and federal agencies to help cultivate a culture of prevention and create resilient workplaces that prevent as well as respond to harassment and violence impacting the workplace. As part of my job, I read and hear about many forms of violence, abuse, and harassment in the workplace, and admittedly, Uber isn’t unique when it comes to employers who lack effective responses to these types of workplace issues. What those two brave women described could happen to any woman, regardless of industry or position.
Last year, a study called “Elephant in the Valley” surveyed more than 200 women working in the Bay Area tech industry. The respondents had at least 10 years of experience and held varying positions of influence.
• Despite many respondents having high status positions, 60% of those surveyed experienced unwanted sexual advances.
• One in three women reported having felt afraid of their personal safety at work.
• Sixty percent who reported sexual harassment were dissatisfied with the course of action taken by their employer. The remaining 40% did not report the harassment because they thought it would negatively impact their career, because they wanted to forget the incident, or because they signed a non-disparagement agreement with their employer.
Unfortunately, these statistics are not unique to the tech industry. A national survey conducted last year of non-managerial female fast food workers found that two in five women have been subjected to sexual harassment on the job, and 42% who experienced harassment felt forced to accept it.
Two eye-opening documentaries, Rape in the Fields (2013) and Rape on the Night Shift (2015), reveal the rampant sexual abuse of female farmworkers and janitors and the industries’ decades of impunity from any consequences. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, about 50 people a day are sexually assaulted or raped while working. This may only be a fraction of the reality, since much goes unreported for various reasons. For low-wage workers and other vulnerable people, circumstances may make it even more difficult to report. They may feel no choice but to endure the abuse in fear of losing their job, creating a more hostile environment, or even deportation.
How Do We Prevent This?
Many employers do not have a policy that addresses workplace violence, or domestic and sexual violence, and this is a huge problem. Without a policy and clear protocol in place, employers risk the safety of their organization as a whole. This includes the physical wellbeing of their employees and the security of their market viability, especially with the growth of a discerning consumer base bent toward social justice.
Policies alone won’t change the workplace culture; employers must be prepared to enforce them.
All employees should receive comprehensive anti-violence training, advising them of their rights and a complaint procedure, and everyone should feel safe to report inappropriate behavior without fear of retaliation.
What We’re Doing
For the past few years, we have been working with three employers who have committed their workplaces to a higher standard of workplace safety and accountability. These employers have been a part of our Low Wage, High Risk pilot projects, including two restaurants in New York, a hospital in Maryland, and an agricultural grower in Florida. We partnered with local service providers and workers’ rights advocates in those communities to develop workplace policies, and culturally-sensitive training and awareness-raising materials that will serve as a model for their respective industries. These employers’ commitment to creating safe and resilient workplace communities is commendable and perhaps even lifesaving.
After one of the trainings at a farm in Florida, one woman stood up and thanked her employer, saying that the training was like medicine for her. Others agreed, saying that these trainings showed them that their employer cares about their safety and that there are resources available to support anyone experiencing violence.
After a training for supervisors at the hospital, people expressed how something like this was so needed. At that particular hospital, two employees died as a result of domestic violence incidents, which left many staff wondering if they missed any signs from their coworkers.
As Uber (and other companies) consider next steps, we urge them to take a preventive approach to addressing sexual harassment and violence in the workplace. That may mean something beyond a corporate one-hour training or a zero-tolerance policy. To change a toxic workplace culture that permits harassment and violence, it may mean an employer having to do a deeper dive with a gender and racial equity training, a change in hiring practices, a commitment to fair wages, and the assurance of workplace accommodations for victim-survivors of violence. And of course, my team is here to help provide assistance to employers in assessing their workplace culture and creating policies and training tailored to their workplace.
While it is important to check the boxes of legal obligations, employers should aspire to create a safe, respectful, and supportive workplace for all.