Does Uber worship business performance at the expense of ethics?
That question flared up again at the start of this week, after a former programmer complained about sexual harassment at the car-booking company — and a culture she claimed turned a blind eye to misbehaviour in order to protect high-performing employees.
As the world’s most valuable private technology company, Uber is the most prominent start-up to emerge from Silicon Valley’s latest boom. But it is also in danger of becoming a byword for the “brogrammer” culture of misogyny and a win-at-all-costs aggressiveness that represents the negative side of the Valley’s success.
Travis Kalanick, chief executive, on Sunday promised an immediate investigation, describing the claims as “abhorrent and against everything we believe in”. Media entrepreneur Arianna Huffington, an Uber director, later tweeted that Mr Kalanick had asked her to look into the claims and would take on “a full independent investigation starting now”.
The rapid, textbook response, and the small number of incidents that have received public attention, lend some weight to the claims of Uber insiders that the company is, if anything, less prone to sexual harassment than many other tech start-ups. But Mr Kalanick’s aggressive personal style and questions about the willingness of senior management to deal with the problems have made it hard to shrug off the image of a company out of ethical control.
In a withering blog post, totalling nearly 3,000 words, Susan Fowler Rigetti, a software engineer with a now-well-known sideline in writing, recounted how she was on the receiving end of unwanted sexual advances from her boss, just two weeks after joining the San Francisco ride-hailing company in November 2015.
Having reported the inappropriate approaches, Ms Fowler Rigetti said Uber’s human resources department presented her with a straight choice: “find another team and then never have to interact with this man again” or “stay on . . . but understand he would most likely give me a poor performance review”.
The failure spread beyond human resources to senior management, according to the engineer. “Upper management told me that he ‘was a high performer’,” she said, explaining why no more action was taken.
From a pure business point of view, will this stop people getting into an Uber? Probably not. But will it stop talented female engineers joining the company? In the short term, yes
Says one former employee: “From a pure business point of view, will this stop people getting into an Uber? Probably not. But will it stop talented female engineers joining the company? In the short term, yes.”
Unlike other technology companies such as Facebook and Google, Uber does not publish statistics that show the make-up of its workforce. The company recently hired an experienced new head of human resources, Liane Hornsey, partly to deal with the small representation of women in its ranks. But, if anything, it may be going backwards. Ms Fowler Rigetti herself shone a light on the problem: a department where more than 25 per cent of the workers were female had fallen to less than 6 per cent by the time she left.
Other incidents have contributed to the impression of a senior management with a disregard for women. In 2014, Emil Michael, a senior executive at Uber, suggested the company should consider hiring a team of opposition researchers to investigate the private lives of journalists who criticised the company.
According to BuzzFeed, who reported the allegations at the time, Mr Michael was focused on one reporter in particular, Sarah Lacy, editor of Silicon Valley website PandoDaily. She had written of “sexism and misogyny” inside the technology company. Mr Michael later claimed the remarks, made at a dinner to help relaunch Uber’s battered image, were supposed to be off the record.
Inevitably, cases like this have spilled over into questions about whether Uber has a similar disregard for its passengers and drivers.
“It’s really scary that there’s a company culture where objectification and violence against women is condoned,” Ms Lacy complained, after her run-in with the company. “And you run a service where women get into strangers’ cars alone at night.”
Uber has largely quelled concerns in its early years about potential harassment of women passengers, which include a small number of rape cases. But last year, a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research in the US highlighted what appeared to be a pattern of racial discrimination among its drivers, raising fresh concerns. Similar accusations have been levelled against other “sharing economy” companies, including Airbnb, and Uber is now working with the authors of the study.
Ms Fowler Rigetti, meanwhile, has added her name to a very short list of women who have chosen to take a public stand against what they claim is ingrained sexual discrimination in Silicon Valley. Taking a public stand, rather than walking away quietly, is likely to remain rare, according to experts in such cases.
“People are very mindful of the notion of being seen as troublemakers,” says Yvonne Gallagher, partner at Harbottle and Lewis. “The great majority of women I see about potential discrimination cases will hear about their rights and try and then decide to do a financial deal and move on or find another job.”
Jonathan Chamberlain, partner in the employment team at Gowling WLG adds: “Sadly it is still true that for a woman to make a complaint of sexual discrimination is to soak her career in lighter fuel and strike a match.”
Additional reporting by David Bond in London