The last 48 hours have been pretty bad for the Ayn Rand-themed car service that lives on your phone. After being forced to confront a witheringly critical blog post published by a former female engineer, Uber once again finds itself dealing with the one thing that always seems to fuck it up: Human beings.
Published on Sunday, the blog post by Susan Fowler alleges that sexual harassment and blatant sexism are a constant reality for the relative handful of women inside Uber. Fowler alleges that habitual harassers are protected and women who complain are silenced by HR before being passively-aggressively punished down the road. Fowler goes on to claim that Uber's ability to retain female talent is akin to Donald Trump's a 100-year-old person's ability to retain facts. She offers a rare and searing insider perspective into a company that outsiders are increasingly certain is a venal corporate monolith that takes you home when you're drunk.
The post is a heat-seeking missile aimed directly at the leadership of CEO Travis Kalanick, an executive who has exhibited the man management skills of a cyborg programmed to dislike people. We've said it before and we 'll say it again now; Kalanick's purified strain of Silicon Valley capitalism is awe-inspiring in that it allows him to hyper-focus on the success of Uber above all things. By eschewing emotion, morality and political correctness in favor of automation research, capital infusions from Saudi Arabia and borderline illegal labor practices, Kalanick has built one of the greatest American business success stories since Apple.
In fact, it's only when Kalanick pretends to give a shit about things that society says he should that he stumbles.
When Uber was accused of harassing a female reporter and then an exec bragged about it at dinner with the press, Travis tweeted angrily about it and kept the guy on board. When he was accused of Trojan Horse-ing the entire Robotics Department at Carnegie Mellon, Travis wrote a pretty light check and said "Sorry?" When Kalanick faced a hurricane-level shitstorm for joining Trump's CEO conclave, he allowed the #DeleteUber campaign to fester before ham-fistedly distancing himself from the Trump administration.
But when it comes to the big stuff (like an existential threat to Uber's business model or him being painted as the worst person in tech) Travis seems to only have one move: Hire a former Obama administration official and hope that's what caring looks like.
When Uber was knee-deep in shit a few years back, dealing with various regional regulations, labor law headaches and a toxifying public perception, Kalanick hired former Obama campaign guru David Plouffe to rethink Uber as a political entity. Plouffe was essentially the highest-paid lobbyist in America cloaked under a title that Kalanick felt would make it look like Uber was taking on the political morals of the man who helped elect the first black president. It hasn't worked and Plouffe has left Travis for Mark Zuckerberg. Big names closely associated with a popular and progressive president don't have the magical transitive properties that Travis thinks they do, especially when they are brought in to work for a CEO that is neither popular nor truly focused on progressive political movements.
But when faced with the damning allegations in Fowler's post, Kalanick decided to go back to the Obama well. As recode's Kara Swisher reports:
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick sent a memo to his employees today, announcing a series of moves to quell the growing outrage over serious allegations of sexism and sexual harassment at the car-hailing company.
In it, he said he hired outside counsel, led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, to investigate the charges by a former female engineer and also the wider cultural problems across Uber. It was already announced that board member Arianna Huffington and HR head Liane Hornsey will also be part of the investigation. Also added to the team: Associate general counsel Angela Padilla.
Holder is a bold-faced name and his hire sends a strong message that Uber is taking justice seriously. Luckily for Holder, hiring a woman to investigate widespread misogyny inside his own company made apparently zero sense to Travis and anyway it would have been impossible to find a woman who held Holder's job under the same administration and suddenly has time on her hands. But speaking of women, it is maybe the height of Silicon Valley arrogance for Kalanick to use his most famous female board member as prop in all this. Assuming Arianna's aggressive sleep schedule allows her the time to speak to all of the female staff at Uber, what does that even do? What leverage does Arianna have on the board of a private company that is better capitalized than a lot of sovereign nation states?
But it's Kalanick's email to Uber staffers that makes us think he's getting caught in the old "Say what you think they want to hear but also be yourself" routine. In the blog post, Fowler estimates that the percentage of women in engineering jobs dropped from 25% to 3% during her 13 months at the company. In his email to staff, Kalanick promises swift action and a return to core values yada yada yada. He then refutes Fowler's gender ratios assessment thusly:
Third, there have been many questions about the gender diversity of Uber’s technology teams. If you look across our engineering, product management, and scientist roles, 15.1% of employees are women and this has not changed substantively in the last year. As points of reference, Facebook is at 17%, Google at 18% and Twitter is at 10%. Liane and I will be working to publish a broader diversity report for the company in the coming months.
Not only does Travis try to pull a data sleight of hand by combining three divisions to pump up the numbers and refute Fowler's allegations about just one, he's trying to pull that trick on people he's hired to work with data. He's also bragging about a diversity mix that he pegs at 15%. We understand that tech is not the most gender equitable business sector, but maybe just don't use that number to tout something you want to seem large.
And Kalanick's email closes with a paragraph that seems ghost-written by a ghost he's never met.
I believe in creating a workplace where a deep sense of justice underpins everything we do. Every Uber employee should be proud of the culture we have and what we will build together over time. What is driving me through all this is a determination that we take what’s happened as an opportunity to heal wounds of the past and set a new standard for justice in the workplace. It is my number one priority that we come through this a better organization, where we live our values and fight for and support those who experience injustice.
A company predicated on exploiting inefficiencies in modern transportation and fighting for market share by using part-time labor who receive no protections or insurance and pay for their own cars is decidedly not a company underpinned by justice. But it is a great business model that has created a company valued at more than $60 billion, so maybe it's time to just drop the pretense. Sure, Uber needs to clean up its act on a bunch of things that are pretty indefensible, but no one buys the notion that actual hands are being wrung about it inside Uber. Perhaps erecting a hedge fund-esque wall of silence around itself and dealing with these things internally might be the most efficient and believable use of Uber's self-regulatory time. Hey, it works for finance guys.
Travis Kalanick is the Darth Vader of the new economy but he makes it harder to accept him for his success and genius every time he tries to act like Yoda.