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Uber case could be a watershed for women in tech


Few women in Silicon Valley were surprised by the revelations about Uber detailed this month by Susan Fowler, a software engineer who published an exposé on the culture of sexism and sexual harassment that she said she battled during her year at the ride-hailing company.

For many women in Silicon Valley, the contours of Fowler’s story rang true from sorry experience. There are tales like hers from across the tech industry. This week, The Guardian reported that a female Tesla employee had filed suit against the electric-car company for what she called “pervasive harassment.” (Tesla said in a statement that the claims “have not been substantiated.”) And even in cases where abuse is well documented — as in Ellen Pao’s unsuccessful sexual harassment lawsuit against the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers — the men responsible are rarely punished, and the overall picture rarely improves.

Still, the Uber scandal feels different. It feels like a watershed. For gender-diversity advocates in the tech industry, Fowler’s allegations, and the public outcry they have ignited, offer a possibility that something new may be in the offing.

What could happen? Something innovative: This could be the start of a deep, long-term and thorough effort to remake a culture that has long sidelined women — not just at Uber but across the tech business, too.

“I still see hope and opportunity for Uber,” said Freada Kapor Klein, a partner at venture capital firm Kapor Capital and co-chairwoman of the Kapor Center for Social Impact, who along with her husband, entrepreneur Mitch Kapor, are investors in Uber. Last week, the couple published a scathing open letter pushing the company to more openly investigate its culture. Kapor Klein said that Uber was well known in the tech industry for its unfriendliness to women.

“Uber is pretty far along a spectrum,” she said. “The word among women engineers I talk to is that Uber is the epitome of bro-grammer culture.”

But precisely for those reasons, Kapor Klein argued that if Uber mounted an honest investigation into its culture and pledged to transparently remake what ails it, it could become a model for the industry.

“They did ask me, ‘Has anyone gotten it right in tech?’” she said. “And I said not yet. And that means an opportunity for Uber.”

This might sound Pollyannaish. But Uber’s business incentives lend credence to Kapor Klein’s guarded optimism. At the moment, Uber’s brand is in tatters. It has weathered a long series of scandals and controversies stemming from its aggressive fight against regulators and competitors. Customers refuse to give it the benefit of the doubt; even when Uber’s actions aren’t devious (as when it was wrongly accused of breaking a New York taxi strike held in protest of President Donald Trump’s immigration ban), few spring to its defense.

That’s a reasonable position given the new depths to which Uber constantly sinks. For instance, last year the company defied California state regulators to run a self-driving car experiment in San Francisco. When one of its cars ran a red light, Uber put out a statement blaming human error for the problem. As The New York Times reported last week, that wasn’t true. The car was driving itself, and Uber had misled the public.

Any company with such a reckless culture and tarnished reputation would have to do something to remake its brand. But Uber faces extra motivation to do so.

Unlike many aggressive startups that have come before it — Amazon and Facebook, for instance, were no pushovers — Uber is not a natural monopoly. It sells a service that has ready substitutes, and it has well-funded competitors in many of its major markets. Its rivals have put their supposedly friendlier brands at the center of their competitive strategy. They are all waiting for Uber to fail, and every time Uber finds a way to lower its reputation even further, competitors can peel off customers, drivers and engineers.

Finally, there’s the Trump factor. Ever since the presidential election, people in the tech industry have been amped up. Employees and customers have learned to take up arms against companies that don’t espouse their values, and companies have started to listen.

“Left-leaning Silicon Valley has been embracing the Women’s March and had this heightened awareness about issues that women face due to misogynistic men,” said Karen Catlin, a former software engineer who is now an advocate for women in the tech industry. Now the same social-media energy aimed at Trump is being marshaled against Uber, better known on Twitter as #deleteUber.

Put all these factors together and you get something toxic to Uber’s bottom line. As Ben Thompson of the Stratechery blog noted last week, Uber’s reputation now looks like an existential problem. Its brand is so diminished that it is possible, for the first time, to see how the company’s enormous valuation of about $70 billion could begin to unravel.

Travis Kalanick, Uber’s chief executive, and others at the company appear to understand the gravity of the threat. The company moved swiftly to open an investigation into Fowler’s allegations. Eric H. Holder Jr., the former attorney general, and Arianna Huffington, the media entrepreneur who sits on Uber’s board, were among those it appointed to find out what’s going wrong at the company.

In an emotional meeting with female engineers last week, Kalanick sounded contrite and determined to fix the company.

“There are people in this room who have experienced things that are incredibly unjust,” he said, according to a recording obtained by BuzzFeed News. “I want to root out the injustice. I want to get at the people who are making this place a bad place. And you have my commitment.”

All of this could be for show. To a lot of people, Kalanick’s word no longer carries much weight. But you don’t have to just trust him. If Uber is serious about remaking its culture, we can watch for concrete action.

Kapor Klein is looking for several steps. She wants Holder’s report to detail for the public everything he’s found at the company. She wants to see new policies for how Uber hires people, ones that put more weight on the diversity of its work force. She wants the company to offer more formal and informal ways for employees to report problems to management, including allowing them to do so anonymously in order to avoid retribution. She also wants Uber to offer more training for employees, and better workplace surveys to get a sense of what’s going wrong.

Finally, Kapor Klein said, she would be scrutinizing Kalanick’s own actions.

“You need unequivocal commitment from the top,” she said. “When someone does something abhorrent, do you fire your best performer? That is the litmus test.”

An Uber spokeswoman declined to comment on the outcome of Holder’s investigation, which is just beginning, but said that all of Kapor Klein’s recommendations were on the table.

Kalanick also showed that he is willing to eliminate offenders. After Recode found that Amit Singhal, Uber’s new senior vice president of engineering, had left his old job at Google under a cloud of sexual harassment allegations, Kalanick fired Singhal. (Singhal has denied any wrongdoing.)

And he is apparently willing to alter his own behavior. On Tuesday, after Bloomberg published a video showing Kalanick arguing with an Uber driver over the company’s prices, Kalanick sent an apology to his employees: “It’s clear this video is a reflection of me — and the criticism we’ve received is a stark reminder that I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up,” he wrote. “This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it.”

Whatever Uber does in the next few weeks will only be a start. People who fight for diversity in the tech industry point out it is a hard problem to solve; it could take years of careful and publicly embarrassing actions for Uber and other companies to become more hospitable to women.

“This stuff is deeply entrenched,” Kapor Klein said, relaying a story she had recently heard about a group of programmers at a different tech company. “I heard about this engineer who said that what he and his friends do at work for fun is rate women job applicants according to who they wanted to marry, or who they wanted to kill, and there was a third thing.” Suffice it to say the third thing was not the women’s qualifications for the job in question.

“That just goes to show you the backdrop we’re dealing with,” she said. “Fixing this will be a marathon, not a sprint.”

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