Why Should It Be Up To Women To Fix Uber's Culture Problem?

Photo: Stephen Lovekin/REX/Shutterstock.
In February, Susan Fowler, a former Uber engineer, made headlines when she shared a blog post about the sexism, sexual harassment, and retaliation she faced during the year she worked for the ride-hailing app. The complaints spurred the billion-dollar business to launch an internal investigation led by former Attorney General Eric Holder, and just this Tuesday, the company issued a 13-page report with thorough suggestions for how Uber can fix its culture problem that among, other things, led to a leave of absence for its embattled CEO, Travis Kalanick.
There are plenty of big companies with serious work culture issues (see Fox News), but rarely do they so publicly acknowledge these problems with the promise to fix them. That Uber decided to deal with them head on is laudable. And arguably, it is making significant changes: In the last month, Uber hired three women into leadership roles; called for the resignations of two members of Kalanick’s so called A-Team and fired 20 additional people. Kalanick announced he would be taking a leave of absence; and yesterday, Arianna Huffington, a member of Uber’s board, took to the stage at an all-hands meeting to discuss how the company would be implementing Holder’s recommendations.
And yet, at that very same meeting, billionaire board member David Bonderman interrupted Huffington with a crude joke: More women on boards will only results in a lot more talking.
The tasteless joke speaks to the problem endemic to Uber. How can we seriously believe that it will implement the thoughtful changes outlined in Holder’s report if a board member can’t even get through a presentation without insulting women? And if the men at Uber aren’t willing to reform this bro culture, will women be able to make an impact?
Before Huffington was so rudely interrupted, she was trying to argue the importance of women on corporate boards; there is research that suggests diverse boards equal higher profits for public companies. But if that moment with Bonderman shows us anything, it’s that Huffington’s plan doesn’t go far enough. In order for the culture to improve at Uber, there needs to be more women on the executive team, so they can be involved in day-to-day operations — and we don’t just mean HR (though that’s important as well).
The bigger question, though, is: Why should women help companies like Uber at all?
In the last month, Uber announced the hiring of three women into leadership roles: Apple’s Bozoma Saint John will be the new chief brand officer; Harvard Business School professor Frances Frei is joining as an advisor; and Wan Ling Martello will be only the second woman to join the board. On paper, this looks like a smart move for Uber, which desperately needs some high-profile hires to improve its image. Except these women stand on the edge of one hell of a glass cliff, and I’m not convinced they can save Uber from itself — or if they should even try.
I completely understand wanting a job where you can affect change. But I can’t help but wonder if their time and energy would be better spent somewhere else. Instead of saving a company in distress, which is run by a bunch of misogynists who celebrate “brilliant jerks,” why don’t they go out and start their own? Or join companies that already embrace and support women and other minorities?
I’m not suggesting they start their own competing ride-hailing company. I understand it’s not so simple as that. I also don’t think that companies run by women are inherently better — with clearer missions and happier employees (see THINX). But it seems a shame to me that women as talented as Saint John and Frei will get caught up in a fight where they don’t have the allies — Kalanick, the board, a supportive executive team — needed to win.
I’ve had a few conversations recently with some very successful women about what to do when you work for a company that doesn’t support its female and minority employees. And the advice has always been the same: find a new job. At first, this made me cringe — I don’t want to give up a good fight! But on further examination, I realised that it’s actually excellent advice. Why burn yourself out fighting for change that’s simply not going to happen?
Sure, not everyone has the privilege of having such control over their careers. Some people just need jobs. But when you do have that power — and the drive and vision to want a mission-inspired career — then you should feel empowered to hold your workplace to those high standards.
Women don’t need Uber. But Uber needs us. That’s clear from the steps the company has taken following both Fowler’s blog post and the #DeleteUber hashtag that trended earlier this year. The board wouldn't be pushing for such drastic changes if it didn't believe that a positive corporate culture is necessary for the company's long-term success. We should remember that power.
Perhaps Saint John and Frei and Huffington will fix the ride-hailing app and make it a place where women and minorities thrive. And maybe they’ll fail. But if they do fail, or give up, or wake up one day to realise this isn’t their fight — I hope they’ll be confident enough to admit that it wasn’t worth it. To own that they failed not because they weren’t talented or determined or right, but because they didn’t have support from men. Because women can’t carry this burden alone.
Women have been cleaning up men’s messes for generations. Isn’t it time we let men do some of the heavy lifting?

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