Uber has hired the former US attorney general Eric Holder to investigate allegations of sexual harassment after an engineer went public with claims that she repeatedly faced sexism and discrimination at the ride-sharing company.
In a staff email shared with the Guardian on Monday, Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, said Holder would conduct an “independent review” and also revealed that women made up only 15% of the company’s workforce in engineering, product management and scientist roles.
The hiring of Holder, who was attorney general under Barack Obama, comes as the description of harassment from Susan Fowler, a former site reliability engineer, has gone viral, prompting women across Silicon Valley to share stories of facing misconduct and discrimination in the male-dominated tech industry.
“It’s been a tough 24 hours. I know the company is hurting,” Kalanick said in his email. “It is my number one priority that we come through this a better organization where we live our values and fight for and support those who experience injustice.”
Fowler’s lengthy account on her blog alleged that management and the HR department at the San Francisco-based company frequently dismissed documented cases of sexual harassment, protected a repeat offender and threatened to fire her for raising concerns.
Fowler, who declined to comment further on Monday, alleged in her post that a manager immediately propositioned her for sex when she joined in late 2015, and that a director explained the dwindling number of women in her organization by saying “the women of Uber just needed to step up and be better engineers”.
Fowler, who now works for technology company Stripe, said a manager harassed her with messages on the company chat system but did not face any consequences from HR despite her providing screenshots. She said she later learned that other women had complained about his inappropriate behavior.
“Upper management told me that he ‘was a high performer’ … and they wouldn’t feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake,” she wrote
In one anecdote, she said managers had promised staff leather jackets but ultimately decided not to order them for women “because there were not enough women in the organization to justify placing an order”.
Following her complaint about that incident, an HR representative asked “if I had ever considered that I might be the problem”, she said. Her manager also later told her she was on “thin ice” and that if she filed another report, she would be fired, according to her account. Although an HR official admitted that this threat was illegal, no action was taken, she said.
The harassment controversy comes as Kalanick struggles to move past the viral #DeleteUber campaign, which stemmed from his participation on Donald Trump’s economic advisory council.
The company has long refused to release demographic data on its workforce, even though most major tech companies have in recent years begun disclosing data and publicly acknowledging their lack of diversity. Apple, Facebook, Google and Twitter have all published staffing reports.
Kalanick’s email only provided gender data, saying the 15% figure for women “has not changed substantively in the last year”. The email did not offer statistics on the number of women in senior roles, a key metric for diversity.
A spokeswoman declined to provide racial demographic data to the Guardian on Monday. The CEO said he and Hornsey would publish a “broader diversity report” in the coming months.
Fowler alleged that when she left Uber at the end of 2016, out of over 150 engineers in the site reliability engineering teams, only 3% were women.
This is not the first time a tech corporation has hired Holder in the wake of a discrimination scandal. In 2016, home-sharing startup Airbnb brought him in to investigate claims that users were refusing to rent their homes to black guests, a controversy that spread under the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack. The company subsequently implemented new staff and rules aimed at preventing discrimination, though some critics said the reforms were inadequate.