This post appeared in The Minskys.
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In February 2017, Susan Fowler published a blog post detailing the sexual harassment and gender discrimination she experienced during her time as an engineer at Uber, the ride-hailing company. Although this was not the first time that Uber had been accused of creating a workplace where pervasive sexism and discrimination thrive, Fowler’s piece struck a chord. It built on a wave of criticism of the company from an earlier public relations disaster — Uber’s missteps following protests of President Trump’s racist executive order at John F. Kennedy Airport starting on January 28th and the resulting #DeleteUber campaign — and emboldened others to report sexual and other misconduct at the company (215 complaints about its corporate workplace have been filed).
While the criticisms levied at Uber are generally applicable to Silicon Valley as a whole, public ire was now focused on Uber, which was having a public relations crisis seemingly every week. The one-time $70 billion-valued private company (five times more valuable than the grocery store Whole Foods, which has 431 supermarkets, and was recently acquired by Amazon) was under immense pressure from even investors too. In response, it agreed to two investigations, both led by law firms. One investigated the workplace complaints that had been lodged against the company, leading to the firing of over 20 employees as well as disciplinary action against others. The second’s task was to investigate Uber’s corporate culture and develop recommendations to restructure the company to try to address the root causes of the problems. This team was led by former Obama administration Attorney General, and former Uber advisor, Eric Holder.
The report from Holder’s team, released a few days ago, came up with 13 pages of recommendations, all of which were adopted by Uber’s board of directors. In general, they seek to bring Uber in line with the practices of a company of its size. Some of these are common sense: developing internal controls and processes in a variety of ways, eliminating bias by performing blind reviews, reducing the unusually high amount of power of key executives, giving the board of directors more power, creating oversight and audit committees, using compensation as a carrot and stick, etc. Other recommendations include ensuring that people with children can participate in company events, which is laudable. Where the proposal fails is in its recommendations for changing values and emphasizing diversity, which include training for staff, developing programs to attract qualified diverse candidates, and reforming the list of the company’s core values (from something that a frat boy would write to, no doubt, corporate-speak clichés). It also included symbolic changes, like renaming Uber’s “War Room,” the “Peace Room”.
While revamping Uber’s structure and setting a bunch of (corporate) priorities might seem like a positive change at the company, it’s important to keep a few things in mind. One is that the problems that Uber is facing with regards to its culture and diversity are pervasive in Silicon Valley. Uber might be especially bad in these areas right now, but the typical solutions are unlikely to make much of a difference at the company because they haven’t made much of a difference at most tech companies. There are complicated reasons for these failures, and there should be little confidence that these tired and hollow strategies will work.
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