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Uber’s Implosion Marks A Tipping Point For Overt Workplace Sexism

Evidence is mounting that we are done settling workplace grievances in silence.

Uber’s Implosion Marks A Tipping Point For Overt Workplace Sexism
[Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images]

Uber is overhauling its internal operations in light of an investigation into its corporate culture. Though the fruits of their labor have yet to bear, it feels like an important moment in the battle against sexual discrimination: one where women are actually being heard.

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Since January, Uber has hemorrhaged top talent, leaving its executive leadership barren. In the last week, the company has lost 20 employees, two execs, and one board member. Emil Michael, SVP of Uber business and second in command to CEO Travis Kalanick, has left the company. It’s unclear whether Michael resigned voluntarily, or if he was fired. Kalanick is taking an indefinite leave of absence, and board member David Bonderman has stepped down.

The board has accepted 13 pages of guidance from the law firm Covington & Burling, which include reducing Kalanick’s responsibilities and passing on certain duties to a yet-to-be-hired COO. It will also mean implementing changes to its protocols around human resources, company culture, training, oversight, compliance, and employees’ ability to transfer between teams.

Both Kalanick and Michael are in many ways the embodiment of Uber’s  old hypermasculine values to “always be hustling,” “toe steppin’,” ‘in the mind-set of a champion,” and “super pumped.” Recent character-tarnishing accounts of Michael and Kalanick paint both as the kind of people that accompany colleagues to a South Korean escort bar or who sit idly by as a colleague obtains the medical record of a rape victim in order to question the veracity of that claim. That Michael has left and Kalanick is taking time off indicates that Uber may actually be serious about changing its internal culture.

This rapid turn of events has me wondering: Could 2017 be the year that companies stop getting away with sexist behavior?

Perhaps we’re feeling a bit of buyer’s remorse around the acquisition of President Donald Trump, a man who bragged openly about sexually assaulting women and who, throughout his campaign, taunted women in sexually discriminatory ways, like “nasty woman” Hillary Clinton.

Just a few months into Trump’s presidency, his failed travel ban, unpopular health care bill, and ongoing Russia investigation have left his approval rating hovering just below 40%, according to FiveThirtyEight. Coincidentally, that’s roughly where Uber’s approval rating sits, according to Morning Consult’s brand intelligence data. That’s the lowest rating the analytics agency has recorded for Uber since it began to track the ride hailing company in October 2016.

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What this might say is that more Americans, though initially enchanted by tough-guy theatrics, are ready to reject the behavior inherent to chest-thumping men that win at all costs. While Trump’s approval hasn’t dipped as a direct result of his sexist behavior as Michael’s and Kalanick’s has, it may be a sign of our collective fatigue with machismo as a leadership style.

Travis Kalanick [Photo: Flickr user GES 2016]

What Led Us To This Boiling Point

Back in 2014, Michael was engulfed in his first snafu: getting caught making snide remarks about hiring a team to conduct research into a female journalist with the express goal of turning up some sort of damning information.

That year, Whitney Wolfe sued Tinder over sexual harassment and discrimination— it was ultimately settled for just over a million dollars. American Apparel founder Dov Charney was squeezed out of his company over claims of misconduct and multiple sexual harassment suits. This was also the same year that companies including Yahoo, Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter started to release information about the diversity of their workforces.

If 2014 was the year that we started paying more attention to workplace culture, it was the following year that indicated there was a difference in opinion on what constituted sexual harassment and discrimination. In 2015, Ellen Pao’s lawsuit against her former employer Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers on claims of sexual discrimination and sexual harassment went to court. The case was hotly followed in Silicon Valley, and though there was (to some) gross evidence of misogyny at Kleiner Perkins, Pao lost the suit. Much like Anita Hill’s 1991 case against Clarence Thomas, it succeeded in highlighting bad behavior, but failed to secure a win.

Kleiner’s defense attorney Lynne Hermle painted Pao as an ill-tempered shrew who couldn’t get along with anyone, despite records that she was a high performer. Managing partner at the firm John Doerr even noted in an email, “I  don’t know how a junior partner could have a better year than Ellen did, measuring results, profits, increase in value.” Characterizing women as difficult or in any way insinuating they deserved the maltreatment they got is an age-old trick for silencing them. During Wolfe’s scandal the previous year, certain media reports wrote her off as a slut. Even three years ago, these portrayals felt like a threadbare dish towel; one that has been used for centuries to wipe away the legitimacy of the women complaining about the status quo.

Still, these high-profile events spurred other cases. In 2015, Chia Hong filed a complaint against Facebook on charges of sexual and racial discrimination as well as retaliation for complaining about the former. Another, from Tina Huang, accused Twitter of sexual discrimination in a class action lawsuit. Hong dropped her suit against Facebook later that year, though it’s unclear whether or not she settled out of court. Sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuits are often handled in the shadow of settlements. That makes it hard to discuss or understand the fundamentals of environments that breed both harassment and discrimination. With little visibility into corporate cultures gone awry, we are left to speculate about what actually went on.

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But in 2016, Americans heard the details of one of the most explosive sexual harassment suits the country has ever seen in the case against Fox News founder Roger Ailes. It went well beyond spilling M&M’s down a colleague’s blouse in order to cop a feel. Gretchen Carlson recorded a year’s worth of conversations with Ailes in which he tried to pressure her into a sexual relationship. Before Carlson settled for $20 million, numerous women lined up to tell their own stories in the press of not only harassment, but also psychological and physical abuse by Ailes. Throughout the course of 2016, we not only got a peek into the grotesque sexual life of Ailes, but we also saw the condescending ways in which other members of Fox News treated their female colleagues.

In kind, we saw departures. In light of the accounts shared in the media, Ailes was let go. This year, a New York Times investigation brought to light that Fox paid out $13 million to various women to settle claims of sexual harassment against prominent right-wing commentator Bill O’Reilly. He too was let go. After O’Reilly, Bill Shine, the network’s co-president, was forced out for enabling Ailes’s toxic behavior. The whole exercise marked a win for working women, particularly in the media industry. But that victory may have been superficial. There’s no way to know that Fox, a place that has mastered the art of having PhD-holding women play dumb blondes to gain better ratings, has changed its internal culture.

The End Of Toxic Male Leadership?

Shortly after reports emerged concerning O’Reilly, Susan Fowler, a former engineer at Uber, published a detailed blog post about her experience of being propositioned for sex by a manager, and the myriad ways Uber’s human resources bungled its response to her complaints. According to Fowler, members of HR repeatedly lied to her about the extent to which her tormentor had harassed others, and what her legal rights were. Her story furthered a call among consumers to #deleteuber and instigated a sweeping investigation into the ride-hailing company’s dysfunctional culture. The results have been intense, and it was a blog post, not a lawsuit to be settled into oblivion, that set everything in motion.


Related: What Can Uber Do To Fix Its Broken Culture?


Before the report was released, Uber hired a spate of very talented women both to its board and its leadership. This year added Harvard academic Frances Frei, former Googler Liane Hornsey, and Apple Music’s beloved marketing exec Bozoma Saint John to its leadership. It’s also adding Nestle executive Wan Ling Martello as a director on its board.

Skeptics will say that much of the announced change coming to Uber is merely an attempt to optically skew people’s perception of the company. But with the executive team essentially vacated, 20 other employees fired, and now a board member short, it seems Uber will be starting from scratch in many ways, regardless of its desire to stay the same. Furthermore, the response from Uber to a blog post is a stark contrast to what that response would have been just three years ago.

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The fact that Uber has given so much attention to this issue and is making major leadership changes seems to me rather remarkable, considering the lackluster results we’ve seen from other tech titans to make their workplaces more equitable.

And it points to something else: Rather than finding justice in a courtroom, women are finding it through airing their stories in the press and on the internet. When Uber’s leadership announced the findings of their report, they nodded to the Fowler blog post that roiled the company.

That’s not to say that Uber’s efforts haven’t felt staged at times. There are still major questions about who will be added to the board to help create an ethics and culture oversight committee, as suggested by Covington & Burling. But Uber has actually agreed to a rather thorough road map that could lead to cultural change. The recent rash of firings and simultaneous hiring of big league women feels like a reckoning–one we wanted in 2015, and in my opinion didn’t get.

Yesterday, as Uber’s leadership relayed its plan for transition to a room full of Uber employees, board member David Bonderman made a gross and archaic generalization about women, showing that that the culture shift in their leadership still has a long way to go. As Arianna Huffington touted the growing percentage of women on the board and said that there is a high likelihood that the presence of one woman leads to a second woman being on the board, Bonderman interrupted to say, “Actually, what it shows is it’s much more likely to be more talking,” according to audio obtained by Yahoo.

Bonderman apologized after the negative press attention that followed, and then late that evening, he resigned from the board. It signals that at the very least, Uber is willing to take action rather than pollute the world with insincere apologies.

Whether or not Uber is able to take itself from truculent startup to mature corporate culture is to be determined. More important is that women’s tales of discrimination are out in the open, and as such are forcing companies to deal with them. This new paradigm is in itself problematic. Women are being forced to chose between airing their grievances publicly in order to seek change, or to fight in court and potentially receive compensation for mistreatment in a vacuum. Hopefully, the next milestone on this long road will give them both.

About the author

Ruth Reader is a writer for Fast Company who covers gig economy platforms, contract workers, and the future of jobs.

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