Women in tech say past Uber employee's sexual harassment allegations 'no surprise'

When Toronto tech CEO Huda Idrees read a blog post about being sexually harassed while working as an engineer in the tech sector, she was “saddened but not surprised.”

Toronto women say work needs to be done to close the gender gap in the tech sector

Tech startup founder and CEO Huda Idrees said she has witnessed sexual harassment at every company she has worked for in her field. (Chris Chan)

When Toronto tech CEO Huda Idrees read a blog post about a female employee being sexually harassed while working as an engineer in the tech sector, she was "saddened but not surprised."

"I can safely say that every single place I've worked at, I've noticed more than one account of sexism in the workplace," she said.

Last week, engineer Susan Fowler Rigetti's blog post that painted a picture of the misogynistic culture at the ride-sharing app Uber went viral. In the post she alleges explicit sexual advances from her manager and having her complaints to HR ignored.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has since launched an investigation into the matter.

Amid the fallout, top engineering executive at Uber, Amit Singhal, resigned Monday after failing to disclose that he left his previous job at Google because of a sexual harassment allegation. 

A common problem in tech 

Idrees, who founded the start-up Dot Health, says the problem is widespread in the "boy's club" tech world and Rigetti's story is all too common.

"This isn't news," she said. 

According to a 2016 report called "Elephant in the Valley," 60 per cent of the 220 women working in Silicon Valley surveyed said they experience unwanted sexual advances, while 87 per cent fielded demeaning comments from their colleagues.

At one company Idrees worked at, a male developer was hired, and two weeks into the job, he interviewed a female engineer. The interview didn't go well.

"His response when he came out of the room was 'I'm not surprised. Females never make good developers,'" she recalled. "I thought he was joking."

Idrees called him out for being unethical and reported him to the CEO. But nothing happened.

"That behaviour went completely unchecked," she said. "That person got promoted later on."

Growth consultant Sarah Stockdale said women are leaving the tech industry because of the misogynistic culture. (Sarah Stockdale)

Sarah Stockdale, who has been working in the Toronto startup world for the past seven years, said early in her career, she would constantly be hit on by men at tech events and implemented a two beer rule: If she thought people would've had more than two beers, she'd leave.  

"A lot of the time we'd be one of very few women in the room," she said. "It can escalate and you just don't want to be a part of that."

She said the gender pay gap in tech startups is often magnified and she sees many women leaving the the "male-dominated" industry because they don't feel comfortable or feel they can't accelerate their careers.

Though Stockdale advocates there are some incredible male leaders in the industry, she said there's more work to be done and she is assembling a team of strong females in the field to spearhead panel discussions.

"I think we need to continue to be vocal and continue to amplify each other's experiences and stories and support each other," she said.

Penalty for speaking out

Idrees said being vocal is often easier said than done.  

"Women can get labeled a 'femi-nazi' the moment they mention sexism in the workplace. Their careers can get limited," she said. "Companies with giant legal armies can build smear campaigns against women who go after them."

As a CEO in the tech sector, she said she is committed to keeping people in check. "Part of speaking out about this openly is so other people can keep me in check too," she said.

A proactive approach

The community group Civic Tech Toronto, which brings together developers, designers and people from across the sector for hack nights and weekly meet ups, is taking a proactive approach to sexism.

Before every meeting, the company's code of conduct and anti-harassment policy is read out loud and organizers are offered up as people to go to with any problems.

"It's important to set the tone we want to have," said Civic Tech steering committee chair Lia Milito. "We're trying to make a safe place."