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A viral blog post is forcing Uber to address its sexism problem

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Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.
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Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is struggling to salvage his company’s public image after an explosive Sunday blog post by a former Uber engineer describing a year of misogynistic treatment she suffered at the company.

Kalanick has recruited a distinguished panel, including publisher Arianna Huffington and former Attorney General Eric Holder, to look into engineer Susan Fowler’s allegations. And in an emotional Tuesday meeting, Kalanick apologized for the toxic culture at the company he founded.

“Travis spoke very honestly about the mistakes he’s made and about how he wants to take the events of the last 48-hours to build a better Uber,” Huffington wrote in a Tuesday post on Uber’s company blog. She vowed to “hold the leadership team’s feet to the fire” on issues of sexual harassment at Uber.

Fixing Uber’s sexist culture is an important project, but it won’t be an easy one. By the time a company gets as big as Uber, its culture tends to take on a life of its own. Changing that culture from the top is going to be a slow and painstaking process.

A former Uber engineer says the company has a pervasive sexism problem

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In a Sunday blog post, Fowler alleged that between her hiring in November 2015 and her departure in January 2017, she experienced a truly remarkable string of sexist incidents that — if proven — would give her grounds for a sexual harassment lawsuit, several times over.

Fowler alleges that on her first day on her new team, her boss propositioned her for sex over company chat. When she reported the incident to HR, she says, he did not lose his job because the man was a “high performer” and it was his first offense. She says she later discovered this was untrue: Other women had reported the same manager to HR for similar offenses.

It didn’t stop there. She says she experienced several more sexist incidents and reported them. When she pointed out that there were few women engineers in her part of the company, Fowler, alleges, an HR representative replied with “a story about how sometimes certain people of certain genders and ethnic backgrounds were better suited for some jobs than others, so I shouldn't be surprised by the gender ratios in engineering.”

She says her manager threatened to fire her if she kept reporting problems to HR. At this point, she left the company.

Uber has a reputation problem

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The 99th floor of the Kingdom Tower in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The repressive Saudi government is one of Uber’s biggest investors.
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Uber has long had a reputation for having a fratty corporate culture. In a 2014 GQ profile, Mickey Rapkin wrote of Kalanick that “when I tease him about his skyrocketing desirability, he deflects with a wisecrack about women on demand: Yeah, we call that Boob-er.”

Last year, BuzzFeed reported that the company’s internal customer service database included thousands of messages from customers with the phrases “sexual assault” or “rape.” Uber disputed these statistics, arguing that most were false positives — involving people with names like “Don Draper,” for example — and said that customers had actually reported fewer than 170 incidents of sexual assault and five rape claims between December 2012 and August 2015.

Then in June, Uber announced a $3.5 billion investment from the government of Saudi Arabia. This raised eyebrows because the kingdom has one of the world’s worst records when it comes to respecting women’s rights. Saudi Arabia is infamous for refusing to allow women to drive and for limiting their ability to go out in public without a male chaperone. The regime once punished a rape victim for being alone with a male non-relative.

Of course, none of this tells us whether it’s true that Uber has a rampantly sexist workplace culture. But it does suggest that Kalanick hasn’t exactly made gender equality a high priority for his company. For that matter, Uber has never really made high ethical standards a priority more generally.

In the early years, when Uber was a plucky underdog trying to break up powerful taxi cartels, many people found Uber’s rule breaking charming. But as the company grew to dominate the taxi market, it began to seem menacing. This came to a head in 2014, when a series of stories reinforced the impression of Uber as a reckless company with little regard for the rights of its customers, drivers, and employees.

That year, Uber was accused of spying on its own customers. An Uber executive threatened to dig up dirt on journalists. And in Lyon, France, Uber ran a promotion offering to pair customers up with drivers who were “Avions de chasse” — a phrase that literally refers to fighter jets but is slang for attractive women.

In each of these cases, Uber backpedaled in the wake of a public backlash. Kalanick, for example, tweeted out an apology for his executive’s comments about journalists — though the executive still has his job. But there was little apparent effort to raise the company’s ethical standards more broadly.

There’s also been a long-running controversy between Uber and its thousands of drivers, many of whom are upset about the service’s low pay and lack of due process. Rather than trying to address these concerns proactively, Uber waited until drivers filed a massive lawsuit, then made some concessions to drivers in the settlement.

Uber’s poor reputation hurt the company a few weeks ago when it disabled surge pricing in New York during a spontaneous protest against Donald Trump’s immigration policies at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. Taxi drivers were refusing to pick up passengers from JFK in solidarity with the protesters, and critics interpreted Uber’s move as an effort to break the strike. (This made no sense, since disabling surge pricing meant fewer Uber drivers going to JFK.)

But years of controversy have conditioned many people to believe the worst about Uber, so a #DeleteUber campaign quickly gained traction.

Changing Uber’s culture won’t be easy

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Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.
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The problem for Kalanick is that it’s not easy to change the culture of a company Uber’s size. With thousands of people reporting to him, Kalanick can’t personally oversee more than a tiny fraction of the decisions made at the company. So he’ll have to rely on middle managers at the company to implement any efforts to give Uber a more sensitive corporate culture.

And to some extent, those managers opted in to Uber’s fratty corporate culture by choosing to work there. Presumably, some of them liked that culture, while others put up with it grudgingly. But the ones who liked the old way of doing things aren’t necessarily going to change their behavior just because the CEO says they have to.

One of Fowler’s stories illustrates just how hard this kind of problem can be to fix once it becomes entrenched. Late in her time at Uber, Fowler started trying to transfer to another part of the company that she hoped would not be plagued by sexism. She says she had received excellent performance reviews but was told she couldn’t transfer out of her department due to performance problems. She waited for her next performance review, again received excellent marks, and was still told she couldn’t transfer.

“It turned out that keeping me on the team made my manager look good,” Fowler wrote. “I overheard him boasting to the rest of the team that even though the rest of the teams were losing their women engineers left and right, he still had some on his team.”

If Kalanick gets religion on this issue, it’ll be fairly easy to get managers to stop doing overtly sexist things like propositioning employees over company chat. But if managers aren’t fully on board with the new direction, there are lots of ways they can undermine the policy — and make life miserable for women employees — in ways that won’t be easy for senior management to detect. And without sustained effort on Kalanick’s part, it’ll be easy for Uber to fall back into old patterns.

That’s not to say Kalanick shouldn’t try. He can and should take steps to make Uber a less sexist place. But he seems to have dug himself a pretty deep hole at this point. Repairing the damage is going to take a lot more work now than it would have if he’d been focused on this issue from the beginning.