Last month, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler rocked the company with a blog post alleging systematic gender discrimination at the ride-hailing giant. Fowler wrote that her boss propositioned her for sex almost immediately after she started her job. And she says that when she reported this to the human resources department, they dismissed it because her boss was a “high performer.” According to Fowler, this was just the first of several instances of blatant sex discrimination she witnessed at the company.
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick moved quickly to address the issue. He organized a five-member panel to investigate Fowler’s complaints and larger questions about Uber’s treatment of women. But not everyone was satisfied with this response. Critics such as early Uber investors Mitch Kapor and Freada Kapor Klein faulted Kalanick for stacking the panel with insiders, including an Uber lawyer, an Uber HR executive, and Uber board member Arianna Huffington.
In late February, I talked to Elizabeth Ames of the Anita Borg Institute about this debate. Anita Borg was a pioneering computer scientist, and the institute promotes women’s involvement in the technology industry. Ames works with male-dominated technology organizations to increase their gender diversity.
I asked Ames to rate Uber’s response to the crisis and offer advice for organizations trying to create a more welcoming culture for women in technical roles. The transcript of our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Timothy B. Lee
How do you rate Uber's response to Susan Fowler’s allegations of rampant misogyny at Uber?
I would give them pretty mixed marks on it. I think it's great that they want to really understand what took place; that's a good starting point. When you have allegations that are potentially legal violations and legal issues, the company is obligated to investigate those by law.
However, the committee that is investigating doesn't really look independent. When you have somebody from your legal team on it, that concerns me to some extent.
Also, this is indicative of some cultural issues. And really understanding the cultural issues, and having a commitment to diversity and inclusion, that doesn't require a legal investigation. So I’d like to see a longer-term plan to really understand what the cultural issues are here and address them.
Timothy B. Lee
Sexual harassment law has been around for a long time, and I would have thought we’d reached the point where every HR department in the country knows they need to take this seriously. Can you help me understand how companies develop the kind of toxic culture Fowler has alleged exists at Uber?
They come about in a number of different ways. You want to look at how people get hired, how people get promoted, how people get paid, and what kind of behaviors are celebrated.
If you have a culture that says win at any cost, then you're going to get people internally that behave that way. I think that when you see things like, “This person is a high performer,” ergo they're exempt from any action for bad behavior. And what defines high performer? Usually in these cases, nobody really knows what defines high performer.
Timothy B. Lee
As part of his response to Fowler’s allegations, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said that 15 percent of Uber’s technical employees were women, and that the corresponding numbers at Facebook and Google were 17 and 19 percent, respectively. Those figures are obviously higher than Uber’s, but they don’t seem that different. Do you think this is a problem across the tech industry, or do you think Uber has more serious problems than the industry as a whole?
Yes, this is a problem across the industry. But there are companies that perform substantially better, and there are companies making a very concerted effort to change.
We have a great example in Intel, which put some information out about their performance in 2016. Just under 85 percent of Intel’s US workforce is technical. So a very high proportion of their workers are technical workers. They are very complex technical roles. They’re making semiconductors. They’re very complex technical roles.
And if you look at their percentage of women in their technical organization, it's 21.6 percent. That's a lot more than Uber's.
Timothy B. Lee
To play devil’s advocate, 21 percent is significantly more than 15 percent, but it’s also very far from 50 percent. If companies adopted best practices, would you expect them to get up to 50 percent women in, say, a decade or two? And if not, what explains the remaining gap?
There's a lot of reasons that explain the remaining gap. The industry average right now is around 21 or 22 percent, and we know that the percentage of women graduating with computer science degrees is still lower than it should be. It’s not 50-50. But we know we're making significant progress in higher education.
Intel runs a program for high school kids called the Intel science prize. It's a big deal, it's sort of the leading event for high schoolers with STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] interest, and this past year, more than half of the finalists were girls. And of the three winners, two were girls. When people say girls aren't good at this kind of stuff, it's just nonsense. Given the opportunity, given the encouragement, they'll achieve at just the same rate.
We also know that if you go outside of the core group of very high-end schools, you find a lot more diverse candidates. There are ways for them to dramatically increase that percentage; that's why you see companies like Intel and Google making significant progress.
Are they there yet? No. Nobody has cracked the code on this. Nobody has their workforce at 50-50. There are still challenges, but 15 percent is not acceptable.
Timothy B. Lee
Make the pragmatic case for me. If Uber doesn’t figure out how to treat women better, how is that going to hurt them beyond the negative headlines?
There's a ton of evidence that when you have diverse teams, you get better outcomes. You're less likely to get groupthink. You’re going to get more innovative approaches. For a company that prizes innovation and innovative approaches to things and better outcomes, having diverse teams should be a priority.
All of these companies are competing for talent. And if you offend half of the talent pool before they even walk in the door, and have a reputation for being not a place they want to work, you've written off the best and the brightest.
And it isn’t just women that start to get turned off from environments that are not inclusive. It's other men, it's racial and ethnic minorities, it's a whole batch of people who start to walk away. You've got to be looking at the full talent pool.
Timothy B. Lee
Let’s assume that Travis Kalanick gets a report back that confirms that Uber has systematic problems with its treatment of women. It seems like changing that might not be easy. It’s not like he can just send out a memo saying that the culture needs to change. What do you recommend to a leader who recognizes that he has this kind of problem but isn’t sure how to fix it?
It’s hard, and it takes time. We look at it with three key watchwords. One is transparency, the second is accountability, and the third is a holistic approach.
What I mean by transparency is that it's valuable to know what your numbers are, where you stand, and to be as transparent as you can about that, both internally and externally.
Externally, transparency puts pressure on companies to make change. Internally, helping a group of managers understand what the diversity of their group is, where there are challenges, where they may be reviewing people positively but not promoting them, and trying to understand what's going on there.
Accountability is holding everyone in the organization accountable for diversity and for building an inclusive culture. That starts at the top of the organization, but it doesn't end there.
What I mean by a holistic approach is this: A lot of companies will tend to focus on recruiting, but you have to address retention and advancement internally as well. Those are key components to addressing the internal culture. If you're just hiring people in and the culture is a problem, then they're just going to go right back out the door.
You have to provide training and support for people in the organization so they can start to implement best practices. But it doesn't happen overnight. It’s not something where you check the box and you’re done. It's something you work on continually.