How Can a Company Like Uber Get Sexism So Horrendously Wrong?

George Bell

Uber is now a household name, a company that has disrupted and torn to shreds the transport industry as we know it, and a business that has made the lives of those looking to get from A to B immensely easier…and cheaper!

They’ve kept our wallets heavier, our travel times shorter, and our lives happier. They’ve also inspired a wave of new on-demand app startups, with people looking to create “an Uber for everything”.

Externally, Uber are a godsend to the everyday man and woman. But, internally, they’ve been dogged by an unprecedented level of scandals, not least the recent sexism claims that has left them dominating the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

How is it that a company that has managed to revolutionise the world, can’t even run a company with basic principles in place?

 What went wrong at Uber?

The question is, what went right at Uber? It all started when Susan J. Fowler, a now former employee at Uber, wrote a blog post upon her departure titled Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year At Uber.

In short, she documented how Uber’s HR department overlooked a particular executive’s sexual harassment advances because “it was his first offence”. It wasn’t long before Susan discovered that this same executive had actually had several “first time offences” reported by several different women.

Although the executive eventually “left”, Susan noted that there was a game-of-thrones political war raging within the company (presumably with less dragons), and she was consistently overlooked for positions, projects and team moves. Not only that, but the 25% of women employees that formed her organisation when she first joined, had dropped to only 6%.

These women, so desperate to leave Uber, complained to management that the company had a systematic sexism problem that went beyond Susan’s case, but one manager dismissed this claim by saying “sexism is systematic in tech.” Yes, that is a direct quote.

 How can a company that is so progressive be so regressive at the same time? How can a company that is looking to change the world, forget about the things that actually matter?

Naturally, the way in which the employees have been failed so dramatically troubled the shareholders, and Uber just recently fired 20 staff after an investigation turned up 215 complaints of sexual harassment.

However, it’s not just sexism scandals and complaints that has troubled the shareholders. They’ve been riddled with problems; from claims that they stole technology from Google to Travis Kalanick, the CEO of Uber, verbally abusing one of his own Uber drivers.

It’s safe to say that it’s been an absolute car crash (pun intended) of a time for Uber recently, especially with the sexism claims. Are they just a business that can’t seem to get equality, fairness or morality right in any department?

Is it just Uber that’s the problem?

Uber’s business model is clear; drive out (again, pun intended) the competition through low fares, monopolise the market, and then bump up rates to satisfy their shareholders now that the whole world has become accustomed to Uber. It’s a bullying tactic for company growth, and it’s no surprise that in some markets such as China it was eventually banned.

Is Uber alone in this? It would seem not. An article published not long after Uber’s own sexism claims found that Silicon Valley, the supposed home of progressive, disruptive and world-changing startups, has a sexism problem, with 60% of women working here experiencing unwanted sexual advances.

The study, titled Elephant in the Valley, also found that 87% of the women that had been interviewed had witnessed demeaning comments from their colleagues, while a further  39% of those didn’t report the unwanted advances for fear it would damage their career prospects.  

However, this problem isn’t just limited to the land of fast growing companies; over half of women in the UK have been sexually harassed at work. And it’s not just sexual harassment that’s an issue either, there also lies a problem with employment positions.

 Only 19.5% of top London jobs are held by women. Further still, women occupy less than 25% of all UK board positions. Of course, the best candidate always needs to be picked for the job, but having only men in leadership and management positions means that the pool of fresh ideas isn’t represented fairly.

And, as the UK touts itself as one of the leaders in fairness, equality and fresh ideas, these figures are fairly damning. This is especially troubling, given that countries such as Russia, the Philippines, Thailand, China and Indonesia all have more women in senior management positions than the UK, and we are only just above Turkey by 1%.

How can the sexism problem be fixed?

The equality and diversity issue is a different ball game in itself, but focusing specifically on sexual harassment in the workplace, it’s clear that this is a problem from which many women all over the world face, and companies such as Uber aren’t doing much to alleviate. 

The world has changed now, and social media dominates our lives. Sure, social media can be invasive and addictive, but it also has the power to get the word out there-instantly. Indeed, without it, some of the scandals that Uber has suffered over the last year or so perhaps would not have previously come to light. Companies need to realise they cannot, and should not, hide away from these types of problems anymore. Irregardless of social media, even more so for morality’s sake. 

With Uber, a company that has had billions in funding, it’s clear that you can’t simply throw money at a solution. It comes down to the culture that you nurture, the individuals that you choose to lead, and the way in which employees are communicated with, and supported. So how can the problem be fixed?

 Start with good leaders. Creating a company doesn’t make you a good leader. Bringing in millions of revenue doesn’t mean you’re respected. Yes, Travis Kalanick has set up an extremely successful business, but is he a competent leader? It would be hard to argue his case at this moment in time, when he has neglected to deal with internal issues of this scale, which explains his surprising, yet somewhat necessary, departure! A leader is more than a money-maker; they are expected to lead the people in that business. Appoint leaders that can be trusted, or if you’re an employee, work with leaders who you respect. Don’t excuse behaviour, regardless of position.

 Train your managers. Just as leaders aren’t born, they’re made, so too are managers. Managers are some of the most crucial people in a business; they act as the go-between for the employees and the decision-makers. Ensure that your managers know what’s right and what isn’t, what to do if certain situations arise, and how to handle these situations discreetly and professionally.

 Agree a process with HR. Your HR department is another crucial go-between for employees and the ones upstairs, and it’s vital that HR have a clear process of how to keep a business running smoothly. Often, bosses and management may not be fully aware of situations that are occurring, and it’s important that there is an easy-to-follow process in place for employees, HR, managers and leaders.

 Communicate. Communication is one of the most fundamental parts of any business, and yet it’s one of the first things that quickly falls apart. Employees need to feel that they have a space where they can communicate openly, and where they can deliver honest feedback that can change a business for the better. Letting them know that there are processes are in place, and that your company has a no-tolerance policy for discrimination will immediately make them more comfortable, and more engaged. Roughly $37 billion is lost every year in poor employee misunderstandings and communication, and this is just in terms of work costs. How much is lost in terms of employee happiness, productivity and wellbeing in a workplace where they feel they are being victimised?

 Finally, stick to your processes! It can seem obvious, but as a company grows and expands and new members are brought on, it’s not only communication that can quickly fall apart. So too can things such as the basic processes that you must have in place. As a company scales and grows, so too must the way in which you operate. 

Despite Uber’s huge success and plans for an IPO, they have far from “made it”. A company that only focuses on the growth of the business, without focusing on the growth of the employees at the same time, has one foot in the 21st Century, and the other one all the way back in the Stone Age. If Uber aren’t careful, they run the risk of driving (third and final pun, promise) into the ground.

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