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Uber and the problem of Silicon Valley's bro culture

“They never functioned like mature, responsible companies.” —Sarah Lacy, tech reporter


Susan Fowler, a former Uber engineer, wrote a blog post last week detailing the sexist treatment she endured during her year at the company. Among other things, she said that she was sexually harassed by her boss over company chat and that her complaints to HR were dutifully dismissed.

“When I reported the situation,” Fowler writes, “I was told by both HR and upper management that even though this was clearly sexual harassment and he was propositioning me, it was this man's first offense, and that they wouldn't feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to.”

Because the offender was a “high performer,” she added, upper management didn’t “feel comfortable punishing him.”

Fowler says she left Uber after her manager threatened to terminate her if she kept reporting her complaints.

The blog post went viral, prompting Uber CEO Travis Kalanick to release a public statement describing the allegations as “abhorrent and against everything that Uber stands for and believes in.” He has since hired former Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate the charges.

In this interview, I talk to Sarah Lacy, a technology journalist who has covered Uber for two years. She’s also the founder of PandoDaily, a web publication focusing on Silicon Valley. I ask her about Uber’s reputation as a misogynistic company and whether Silicon Valley’s “asshole problem,” as she describes it, is worse than we think.

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Sean Illing

You’ve described Uber as having a “trickle down asshole culture.” My Vox colleague Timothy Lee described it as “fratty.” What went wrong over there?

Sarah Lacy

That piece refers back to a bigger piece I had written a couple months earlier. It was about what was different this time around about the asshole culture in Silicon Valley versus previous iterations. Everyone felt there was a little something different about this era in terms of how people acted and how people treated other people.

What I tried to do in my piece about Uber was to really distill its “bro culture,” explain why it was different. In the early days of Silicon Valley, you had a very Mad Men–like culture: people having affairs with admins and secretaries, chasing women around desks. And then there was the Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg era, where it was these nerdy guys who just were intimidated by women and didn't naturally hang out with or include them.

And then there's what I’d call the “bro wave.” It’s very much a junior-high-age male culture, a hypermasculine, hypersexualized culture. And the hypermasculinity of men usually goes hand in hand with the hypersexualization of women. That's why you see someone like Uber CEO Travis Kalanick doing GQ interviews in which he thinks it’s hilarious to refer to the company as “Boober” because it’s getting him laid so much.

That's what's different about the bro era. Uber was started to be this baller brand. That was the word they used, "baller." The idea was that you could look cool by having a black car come pick you up at any time. I mean, that's the roots of this company well before they had highly paid lobbyists and brand experts.

Sean Illing

So Uber really exemplifies this new culture?

Sarah Lacy

Yeah, the bro mentality, which is really the scourge of this generation of Silicon Valley companies, is just so deeply woven into everything Uber is.

Sean Illing

There are other male-dominated industries. Is there something particular to the startup ecosystem that breeds this culture?

Sarah Lacy

There's a lot of sexism in a lot of industries, and I don't actually know if tech is necessarily better or worse, but I think there are a couple reasons it gets a lot of attention.

One is that tech has always talked this talk about how they're better than everyone else. We're teaching the world. We're a meritocracy, and you can come to this country with nothing and wind up funding the next Google or PayPal or Yahoo. It has this whole ethos of self-achievement and meritocracy. All you have to do is work hard and be smart. And so if you go around preaching that, you can't then just be sexist and racist and everything else. The self-righteousness shtick doesn't square with the facts.

So either you believe it is a meritocracy, in which case only white men have the ability to do this, or you acknowledge there is a bias problem that's really in this industry. So I think the self-righteousness is one reason.

I think the second reason is these startups grow so rapidly, and in the very early days they didn’t have HR departments. They never functioned like mature, responsible companies. So you are a company that is growing so quickly, and there's such a power shortage in Silicon Valley as is, you need to hire anyone who can scale that data center, and if that's a white man, that's a white man. There's a lot of acceptance of that, but what we see in research is that if you don't have a gender-diverse team from day one, it is very hard to create one later on.

Women say they don't want to be the first female on these all-male engineering teams because of how bad the bro culture is. You really, really have to think of it from day one, and founders simply don't believe it's the biggest problem they have to solve.

Sean Illing

Is there any evidence that the founders think it’s a problem today?

Sarah Lacy

I published some news a couple of weeks ago that pulled together three different studies that basically show 95 percent of white men in Silicon Valley do not believe diversity is a top problem, and 75 percent of companies in Silicon Valley don't even believe it's enough of a problem to have any sort of program at all within their companies to solve it.

It just isn't something people prioritize. But we can look at the history of gender minority rights; if it isn't a priority in any sense, it's not going to get solved on its own.

Sean Illing

The Valley apologists say, look, a little assholery is just the price we pay for letting creative, rebellious geniuses start great companies. These people are out-of-the-box rule breakers who can’t be expected to conform to societal norms.

I know you think that’s bullshit. Tell me why.

Sarah Lacy

I do. The thing is, you have to really pull these threads apart. Yes, you need to be really direct when you're building a company. You need to have a culture that's not based on niceties and politeness, and you need to cut through a lot of the regular bullshit that goes into building companies.

We saw a lot of this in the early days of someone like Mark Zuckerberg. We saw a lot of this with what was good about Steve Jobs, where he would say to his team: “No, it's going to be the price point, and you figure it out!” He was doing that in the name of the customer, and it ultimately made for a good product. So there's that aspect to it, which is fine and indeed a lot of what the Valley is built on, and may be crucial for people's process.

The problem is that has come to be an excuse for everything else. Let's come back to the example of Steve Jobs. You will never convince me that core to Steve Jobs's genius is building Apple while disavowing his daughter for many years and refusing to pay child support when he was a millionaire. That was just him being an asshole.

I think that because there is such a cult of Steve Jobs, people have drawn the wrong conclusions from it. You see it all the time. These people who literally wear black turtlenecks, thinking that makes them Steve Jobs, and of course they mimic the worst parts of him, thinking that will make them Steve Jobs. And it doesn't, any more than wearing a hoodie makes you Mark Zuckerberg.

Sean Illing

In what ways does Uber — and Travis Kalanick — reflect this culture? As you know, he has expressed shock at the allegations of sexism and discrimination at Uber.

Sarah Lacy

This is a guy who was literally referring to his company as Boober in an interview. This is a man who had a long blog post about how Uber was using their data to track users having one-night stands.

I mean, I could go on and on and on.