Over the last few years, as almost every major tech company in Silicon Valley has relented to public pressure to reveal the demographic makeup of its work force, Uber has been a notable holdout.
In the rare cases of companies that have avoided publishing their diversity numbers, the withholding generally means one thing: The numbers are bad. That's been the suspicion with Uber, but now we have supporting evidence, thanks to former Uber engineer turned whistleblower Susan Fowler.
Fowler, who worked at Uber from November 2015 until December 2016, has published a detailed recollection of the many times she encountered sexual harassment, sexism, and discrimination while working for the company. The report is full of harrowing anecdotes that describe a workplace where women are preyed upon for sex, are not treated equally, and are told by human resource officials to be quiet when reporting issues. According to Fowler--who is now working at Stripe, another tech company in San Francisco--she was solicited by one of her male managers, and then, after a transfer to another team, found her career progress stunted by another male manager for his own professional gain.
The entire report puts an individual, human face on a Silicon Valley issue more often revealed through data. It offers one of the first real glimpses into what the treatment of women is like inside Uber. Fowler estimates that at the time of her departure the representation of women in her engineering department at Uber was a mere 3 percent. A year earlier, it had been 25 percent.
That number isn't just bad--it's bad even by the tech industry's already depressingly low standards. And it helps explain why CEO Travis Kalanick and his team have been reluctant to talk about diversity--until spiraling events forced them to.
With Fowler's story going viral over the weekend, Kalanick only waited a few hours before addressing it and promising "an urgent investigation." Meanwhile, after years of foot-dragging, Uber is lifting the veil on its diversity figures. In a memo sent to Uber employees and shared with reporters, Kalanick revealed that, as expected, the representation of women in tech roles at his company is low. The figure stands at 15.1 percent.
Kalanick has promised Uber will release "a broader diversity report" in the next few months. That is a good first step, but it underscores what a mistake it was to wait for the inevitable public shaming before acting. For years, groups have been calling on Uber to do this, not only because it is the moral thing to do but because diversity is good for business--a notable study by McKinsey & Company has shown that companies with greater gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to have financial returns that are above the national medians of their industry.
Uber and every company in Silicon Valley would do well to understand that the inclusion of women, Hispanics, and blacks is not a charitable endeavor or a way of shutting up critics. It's the key to tapping the talent pool of the future. Women earn more than 50 percent of U.S. university bachelor's degrees, and minorities are America's fastest growing populations.
The tech industry cannot go to Washington, beg Congress for open borders and more H-1b visas, and argue that there is not enough talent in America capable of building its machines and writing its codes when you have environments like the one that Fowler dealt with at Uber. You cannot say you need more talent with a straight face when you actively suppress, ignore, and reject talented and capable individuals like Fowler and her colleagues.
Companies with diverse work forces find ways to create features and products that can be used by and create revenue from consumers of all backgrounds and all walks of life. Companies with homogenous work forces, meanwhile, create products that fail to address the needs of large consumer groups or, worse, products whose baked-in insensitivity to cultural differences result in public embarrassments.
Look at Twitter. For years, this company has long lacked the representation of women and minorities--groups who are often harassed or discriminated against--in tech roles. That's why it is not surprising that for more than a decade Twitter ignored the need to create strong anti-abuse and harassment tools. Harassment is a significant reason the company fails to attract new users and keep the ones it has.
Would an Uber with more women in technical roles have built better tools to protect female users from instances of sexual attacks by their drivers? Would an Uber with more women in positions of leadership have seen that it's not appropriate to joke about thestalking of female reporters? Would an Uber with more minority employees have prioritized the creation of features that prevent drivers from discriminating against black users--an action that costs Uber money each time a driver turns down a ride?
It's a good thing that Uber is finally taking this step. It's disgraceful it took an unignorable public outcry to make it happen. For its own sake, Uber must ensure its new appreciation of the importance of diversity and inclusion is real, not just a public relations tactic.