In a recent letter to the CEOs of five ridesharing companies — Uber, Lyft, Via, Curb and Juno — members of Congress expressed concern about the industry's sexual assault protocols. CNN was the first to report on the letter, which followed the site's investigation into 103 Uber drivers accused of sexual assault.
The concerns from Congress are not unwarranted. Just last week, Uber, perhaps anticipating such a call for responsibility, announced plans to introduce greater transparency around how it deals with cases of sexual assault. The company said it would end forced arbitration for users and employees with individual claims of sexual harassment and assault. It also put an end to confidentiality clauses in settlements with survivors and said it will compile a first-of-its-kind safety transparency report with data on sexual assaults reported by users.
Uber has assembled a lauded group of advisors, including Tina Tchen, to help with the work ahead . Tchen, whom Uber only officially signed up as a legal advisor last week, has been at the forefront of the #MeToo movement: She is a a member of the legal defence fund for Time's Up, was recently named the chair of the Recording Academy's task force for inclusion and diversity, and has a long history in fighting for women's rights. During the Obama administration, Tchen served as Michelle Obama's chief of staff and led the White House Council on Women and Girls.
Ahead, Refinery29 spoke with Tchen about how she started working with Uber and what she foresees as the main challenges in compiling the company's first transparency report.
How did you become involved with Uber as an advisor?
"After I left the White House last year, and after some time off, I joined the law firm Buckley Sandler. We started a new practice area, called Workplace Cultural Compliance, that was really born out of what I saw when I was in the White House, which is that companies would come to us as we worked our Working Families agenda in the Obama administration and they really wanted to do the right thing around diversity and equity but didn’t know how to do it or have the tools.
"I have thought for a long time that there is a practice there to help companies do better, so we started it at Buckley Sandler. It’s been growing in the current environment. We started it before recent events, and those have only fuelled companies interests not just in sexual harassment, but in overall equity and diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
"Uber’s business is to do all the things that our mothers told us not to do."
"In that capacity, Uber invited me to speak and keynote a women in travel and safety event that they held. I spoke there, as I often do, about how these issues of sexual harassment and sexual assault are key for the travel and hospitality industry because women make over 80% of the purchasing decisions in that industry and yet they are also often making decisions around what’s a safe hotel and what’s a safe route to and from where I’m going. The industry needs to understand that — that there’s both a business opportunity there but also a real business risk.
"Uber’s business is to do all the things that our mothers told us not to do. Get in a car with a stranger and if you’re a driver, pick up a stranger on the street. If it’s not something that people are comfortable with doing, it’s a real business risk. But it’s intrinsically tied to equity and diversity. You can’t look at those issues in isolation. You can’t expect to understand what women travelers are thinking about if you don’t have any women around the table helping you think about those issues and bringing that perspective.
"Tony West, Uber's Chief Legal Officer, [below] and I are friends. We worked together in the Obama administration on a lot of these issues. Tony asked me and my firm to come in and provide legal advice to Uber on this whole suite of issues on women and diversity."
What will your advising focus on?
"We’re going to look at a lot of areas. The one in particular that I can speak to publicly is the transparency report. We’ll be working with the company on that.
"It’s a very complex issue. Describing [assault] behaviours in a consistent matter, collecting the data in a consistent matter, and doing it in a way that Uber can compare itself across different business sectors and across industries is going to take some work. It’s never been done before in a consistent way."
How long do you think it will take to compile?
"I don’t know yet. My involvement with the company is just starting. What I do know is it’s important to get it right. These are very complicated issues."
What do you think will be the biggest challenge of compiling the report accurately?
"One of the biggest challenges is it’s still an underreported crime. We have to remember that we will not in the first report, or the second or third or the fourth, be counting all of the incidents, because for lots of reasons these are crimes that are vastly underreported. I’ve been doing this work in sexual assault for 40 years, and the numbers are still just a fraction [of the total]. We’ve been doing sexual assault awareness with prosecutors, police officers, and rape crisis centres and things have changed a lot, but still, the reporting numbers are low. These are very intimate, personal crimes. You see what victims go through when they do speak out and women are fearful and men who are victims are fearful.
"Getting people to report and getting accurate statistics will be hard, and I think we have to be prepared that, for probably many cycles after that first report comes out, we’re going to see numbers going up, not down, which is going to be uncomfortable. But we need to understand that’s actually a sign of progress. It means people are trusting the process and feeling more comfortable with speaking out."
Are you confident that there can be change in this area?
"I hope so. As I said, I've been working on sexual assault issues for 40 years. However, I’ve never seen a moment where not just individuals, but institutions, companies, and colleges and universities, are paying attention, understanding the issue, making serious, meaningful steps to change policies and processes, and doing it in a way that is informed by advocates."
This interview has been edited for length and style.