A new study has found that African Americans face discrimination from drivers when hailing rides using Uber and Lyft. While the results may be alarming, they're hardly surprising to some observers. That's because Uber and Lyft are two of the least-involved companies in Silicon Valley's push for inclusion, diversity experts say.
The study, released Monday, found that requests for UberX and Lyft from African Americans in Seattle took between 16 and 28 percent longer to be accepted. In Boston, meanwhile, African American males saw cancelation rates that were three times higher than those for white males for Uber riders. Researchers surmise that discrimination may happen even sooner at Lyft, where drivers are shown names and photos of passengers before accepting the request.
"Passengers have faced a history of discrimination in transportation systems," according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, which conducted the study. While the new apps present an opportunity to rectify such long-standing issues, "results indicated a pattern of discrimination," the NBER said.
In response to the study results, Lyft said it doesn't tolerate discrimination and is proud of its impact on communities of color. "Because of Lyft, people living in underserved areas--which taxis have historically neglected--are now able to access convenient, affordable rides," a Lyft spokesman said, adding that the company in June made a pledge to the White House to foster diversity.
For its part, Uber also says it believes it is changing the transportation status quo. "We believe Uber is helping reduce transportation inequities across the board, but studies like this one are helpful in thinking about how we can do even more," said Rachel Holt, Uber's head of North American operations, in a statement.
Critics, though, say the new findings show a troubling trend with some tech startups.
"We think tech companies are going to build technology to remove the biases that we have as human beings in America," says Wayne Sutton, co-founder of Tech Inclusion, a tech diversity conference. "And that is currently not the case."
How discrimination happens
The NBER study found that passenger discrimination generally happens in one of four ways. Drivers may actively avoid areas where certain kinds of passengers live; reject or cancel ride requests from certain passengers; leave low ratings for passengers based on race, gender, or socioeconomic status; or take certain passengers on more expensive, non-ideal routes.
Researchers suggested new policies to reduce discrimination at Uber and Lyft, such as keeping passengers' names anonymous.
The findings come as no surprise to members of the tech diversity community, says Y-Vonne Hutchinson, diversity consultant and co-founder of Project Include, an organization that works with tech companies to help them improve their diversity.
"This is a perfect example of bias seeping down from an organization into its product," Hutchinson says.
While most others in tech, like Apple, Google, Intel, and Slack, release annual or biannual reports on the gender and ethnic makeups of their work forces, Uber and Lyft have not yet done so. The closest either has come to releasing a diversity report was nearly two years ago, when Lyft revealed that 47 percent of its leadership was female.
Another issue is the fact that both tech companies until recently lacked a clear leader when it comes to diversity and inclusion efforts, which has become common practice in Silicon Valley. Damien Hooper-Campbell, eBay's chief diversity officer, led Uber's diversity efforts until he left his position earlier this year. Since then, the company has not filled the position. Lyft, meanwhile, did not hire a diversity lead until two months ago, when it brought on Tariq Meyers.
"These problems are bigger than the tech industry, but we're looking at the tech industry to use technology to remove...bias and racism in people," Sutton says. "It would help if they had a diversity officer at their organizations."
This is also not the first time that diversity incidents have hurt the reputations of Uber and Lyft. In the past, both companies have been sued for violating the Americans With Disabilities Act after users with disabilities alleged that drivers canceled rides or harassed them for having wheelchairs or service dogs.
A tech diversity expert who formerly worked at one of the major ride-hailing companies in San Francisco describes a work culture that emphasized growth over inclusion. "Diversity is just thought of as a fringe project or a side project that they'll get around to eventually but isn't really top of mind," says the person, who requested anonymity due to fear of repercussion. "That's the energy and the feeling that I got within the company."
Experts stress that a lack of diversity in the workplace--besides its obvious ill effects on society--also can be detrimental to business.
For instance, imagine a tech company with a low representation of African Americans on staff. That's important, because tech companies often rely on their employees to test out products in order to catch any flaws that could negatively affect their user base. With few black employees, the company is unable to flag issues affecting black users. As a result, it takes an external organization like the NBER to point out issues of discrimination.
Other companies also are dealing with complaints of racial discrimination. At Airbnb, users have reported that they were rejected as hosts or guests due to their race. This has, in part, prompted the rise of new competitors specifically catering to guests who do not wish to deal with discrimination. Airbnb has reacted swiftly with a broad plan to ramp up diversity among employees and users.
Following the release of the study, Uber and Lyft have put themselves in a similar spot, Hutchinson says.
"They're leaving vast sums of money on the table and positioning competitors to come up and take that money," she says. She points to Twitter, where user abuse based on gender and race was allowed to run rampant and is now hurting the company's user growth.
"We're seeing exclusion on [Twitter] really hurt their bottom line and put the company at a significant disadvantage when it comes to finding buyers and making money," Hutchinson says. "Uber and Lyft will maybe see this as a wakeup call, but I seriously doubt it."