Uber's got a lot of problems these days. One issue is a lack of diversity. Another is an ongoing talent exodus. Fortunately for the San Francisco ride-hailing giant, these two crises could offset each other.
Ever since software engineer Susan Fowler published an account of her experience of sexism and harassment during a year at Uber, the tech company has dealt with a string of high-profile departures, including the resignation of Jeff Jones, Uber's highest-ranking executive after CEO Travis Kalanick. In total, at least seven notable employees have quit or been asked to resign in the past month. While these departures are worrying for investors and threaten the morale of employees, they also present the company with a golden chance to begin turning around its diversity dilemma from the top of its ranks, numerous diversity experts told Inc.
"With so many departures from its leadership team, Uber has a unique opportunity -- perhaps its last opportunity -- to hit the reset button to assemble a diverse team," said Mark Taguchi, vice president at Management Leadership for Tomorrow, a nonprofit organization that specializes in helping companies find and hire talented black and Latino candidates. "Start at the top, and, over time, the rest of the company will reflect the changes in the leadership team."
Since Fowler's blog post in February, Uber has indicated it's making a higher priority of diversity. Not only is this important for the company considering the public relations headaches its lack of diversity has created, but studies also show that companies with more diversity perform better on average than non-diverse competitors. Uber has committed to releasing a report breaking out the demographics of its work force by the end of March, and it has created new job openings on its diversity and inclusion team.
In a call with the media on Tuesday, Uber explained how it has adjusted its hiring process to ensure it is more welcoming to candidates of underrepresented backgrounds. These steps include scrutinizing the wording of 1,500 Uber job openings to ensure they are free of unconscious bias, said Liane Hornsey, Uber's head of human resources. Hornsey added that Uber is also putting its employees through diversity training, and it has begun using panels of diverse interviewers when considering job candidates.
"I want to make sure that the company we build at Uber reflects really the best of anything in the workplace so that no woman ever has to choose between advancing her career and completely unacceptable treatment," Uber board member Arianna Huffington said on Tuesday.
At least on paper, Uber appears to be taking the right steps to improve its diversity, but there is also cause for concern. Most notably, Uber's newfound commitment to diversity has been narrowly focused on women. Little attention has been paid to the inclusion of minorities, which is just as big a problem in Silicon Valley.
Following Fowler's post, Kalanick issued a memo committing the company to releasing its diversity report. In the note, Kalanick disclosed the representation of women in tech roles at Uber, which stands at 15.1 percent. On the call Tuesday, the company featured a panel of female speakers, including Huffington and Hornsey as well as Uber's head of North American business, Rachel Holt, and Uber's head of communications, Rachel Whetstone. Huffington made a point to highlight the women on the call as well as other women within Uber's leadership, and the panel confirmed that Uber is indeed interviewing women for its new chief operations officer opening.
Little attention, however, was placed on women of color or minorities in general.
Until Uber releases its diversity report, it's unclear what the representation of minorities at the company is, but there is little reason to believe it is any better than the Silicon Valley average.
One former engineer who worked on a mostly white team recalled an incident when a group of black Uber engineers walked into the company's offices at night and were stopped by security, who questioned why they were there.
"One of the questions they asked was if they were food service people, even though they were in Uber gear," the former employee told Inc.
"Sure, Uber could use the recent events as a catalyst to focus more proactively on diversity. I'm not sure we've seen anything to suggest it has plans to do that," said Joelle Emerson, CEO of Paradigm, a consulting firm focused on helping tech companies improve their diversity.
Emerson pointed to recent remarks by Huffington denying the existence of a "systemic problem" with the treatment of women at Uber as an example that the company's commitment to diversity may not be genuine.
"Organizations that refuse to acknowledge their own systemic problems are unlikely to come up with systemic solutions, which is exactly what Uber needs in this case," Emerson said.