"Wow, that article is something else," Tracy Chou, a well-known software engineer and diversity advocate, said after reading this week's Wall Street Journal interview with Liane Hornsey, Uber's chief HR officer.
Chou, who is on the founding team of Ellen Pao's non-profit, Project Include, is hardly alone in feeling taken aback by Hornsey's comments in the piece, aptly titled "Can This Executive Make Uber A Place Women Want To Work?": It has drawn criticism from multiple women in tech, who spoke out across Twitter and in conversation with Refinery29.
Hornsey, who joined Uber in January, has, as the title suggests, been seen as one of the women in charge of turning around the troubled company. Others joining her in this task include chief brand officer Bozoma Saint John and SVP of leadership and strategy Frances Frei. All three women have faced the fallout from former Uber employee Susan Fowler's blog post about the company's toxic culture. Since founder Travis Kalanick resigned as CEO in June and former attorney general Eric Holder submitted his recommendations for change, much of the focus has been on what Uber is actually doing to address these issues.
Change can't happen overnight, and Hornsey acknowledges the challenging workload that has resulted. But some of her comments, and choice of words, have struck others as odd and, in one case, glaringly incorrect. In response to one question, asking how Uber is ensuring implementation of the Rooney Rule to increase the number of women and minorities in leadership roles, Hornsey sounded less than optimistic:
"I’ve got to be honest, it’s going to be bloody hard when it comes to engineering. We’re starting where it’s easier, such as in my function, where there are more women. I’m really scratching my head about how the hell I do this in engineering, and I’m going to really have to try."
She goes on to say that recruiters have "identified about 1,800 women in engineering [as current professionals and as students]."
That number struck others in the industry as exceedingly low.
"With the Grace Hopper Conference having nearly 20,000 attendees this year that's a ludicrous number," Sara Chipps, founder of wearable company Jewelbots, which teaches girls to code, told Refinery29. "I don't know where she got this 1,800 number but obviously whomever gave it to her cares little to nothing about accuracy."
In response to inquiry about the number, an Uber spokesperson clarified that this number was just referring to those women whom the company had not already been in contact with: "Over just the last few months, our recruiters identified roughly 1,800 women via referrals, sourcing and market mapping we who think would make excellent additions to Uber and who we had not previously engaged with. Of course there are many more qualified women out there — this is just a start and we're focused on identifying and connecting with many more candidates as we look to diversify our workforce."
Still, the problem isn't just the figure, it's also how difficult Hornsey implies it is to find those women in engineering. It's true that engineering is still a male-dominated profession: In 2016, the Harvard Business Review reported that 40% of women with engineering degrees quit or don't enter the profession to begin with. However, much of the feedback to Hornsey's response echoes a single sentiment: try harder.
"It's not hard to find great women in engineering," Sara Mauskopf, CEO and co-founder of parenting technology company Winnie, told Refinery29. "Winnie has attracted a majority-female engineering team including our head of engineering who is also a woman. It turns out when you build an inclusive environment that's supportive of women, and parents, and has women in leadership roles, they flock to work for you."
Women also expressed surprise that Hornsey has not reached out to Fowler. Though she says she publicly thanked Fowler, Hornsey says in the interview that she doesn't "know whether there would be any benefit in meeting with her." Fowler is, as Hornsey says, an ex-employee, but she's also someone whose words and experiences incited the call for reform in the first place. It's worth wondering: Why not meet with her to get her thoughts and any further insight she might have?
"There's a reason that exit interviews are standard practice in HR — they're invaluable sources of feedback about areas for improvement," Chou said in an email to Refinery29. "Any real effort to improve diversity and inclusion at Uber would of course involve reaching out to Susan Fowler. Liane Hornsey's statement sounds petty and vindictive."
The road to a better Uber was always going to be a long and arduous one. While it's good to get an update on how things are going, it's hard to come away from reading Hornsey's interview feeling like it's a challenge she's optimistically tackling, and that's disappointing. Though there have been bright spots along the way, such as Saint John's response to a misguided ad in India, the important question about the company still looms large: Is the culture at Uber simply too hard to change? Or is it just going to take a very long time?