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Uber, Silicon Valley and Sexism

Why the car service app company’s woman problem is also a problem for its investors

It’s no secret that Silicon Valley has a woman problem. Women are disproportionately underrepresented in the tech sector. Nor are there many women venture capitalists. And, largely as a result of the lack of women in Silicon Valley’s inner circle, there are far too few female board members at major tech firms.

Lack of diversity is one thing. The tech sector also has too few African-American or Hispanic employees, investors and entrepreneurs. Organizations such as the not-for-profit Girls Who Code are seeking to tackle both the lack of women and minorities in an industry that generates enormous wealth for those lucky enough to succeed in it. But there is an element of Silicon Valley’s culture that isn’t just male dominated; it’s positively hostile to women. All of which makes this week’s ruckus around Uber and its attitude toward women disturbing, and something that should be a cause of concern for both current and prospective investors.

Some context. Technology editor Jonathan Krim had an excellent article in the Wall Street Journal a few months back titled “Will Silicon Valley Have Its NFL Moment?” Written at a time when the National Football League was having to publicly grapple with the ill treatment of some of its players toward women and children, Krim pointed out that “ill treatment of women isn’t new.” But unlike in the NFL, where a couple of high-profile incidents in the fall caused financial backers and stakeholders to finally take a stand, in Silicon Valley “misogyny and sexism remain ripe for disruption,” he wrote.

Krim highlighted two instances of would-be women tech business builders who were aggressively, sexually propositioned by prospective investors. (One, a female founder, had written an anonymous article on Forbes.com; the second, a New York–based woman, had described her encounter with a European venture capitalist.) There was also the disturbing case of Gurbaksh Chahal, the former CEO of RadiumOne, who was fired by his board in April after pleading guilty to domestic abuse charges.

The gaming industry, tech’s fun house, also has a reputation for objectifying women. And, anyone who wants to feel really depressed should check out Geek Feminism’s time line of sexist incidents in the “geek” community. The tech sector is the home of mostly men, many of whom achieve their greatest breakthroughs in their early 20s. Having spent a lot of time in front of a computer screen, not all of them have the best social skills. Not many of them have dated many women. And, suddenly, if they strike it rich, the money and women are everywhere. Call it arrested development, call it bro culture — call it sexism. Sure, not everyone in Silicon Valley falls into this trap, but clearly more than a few do.

Enter Uber. Founded in 2009, the San Francisco–based company is transforming the taxi business by allowing people to hail a ride by using a phone app. Recently, Uber has come under criticism for some aggressive tactics, particularly its efforts to thwart its closest rival, Lyft, reportedly by poaching drivers and deluging it with bogus requests for rides. The firm was also coming under scrutiny by some journalists for its attitude toward women. One of the journalists who has written critically of Uber is San Francisco–based Sarah Lacy, founder and editor-in-chief of PandoDaily.

On October 22 Lacy posted a piece criticizing Uber for a new French advertising campaign that the news web site BuzzFeed had come across. The campaign, unveiled by Uber’s Lyon office, likened French women Uber drivers to prostitutes. (It’s not at all subtle, as the original BuzzFeed post makes clear.) Lacy had previously called out Uber and, in particular its CEO, Travis Kalanick, for “asshole” behavior: bragging about how easy it was for him to get women, disrespecting drivers and slinging mud at rivals. And in her post on the Lyon ad, Lacy let it rip. “I’ve never had much of an issue with Kalanick’s hard-charging competitive nature or libertarian beliefs. But this sexism and misogyny is something different and scary,” she wrote. “Women drive Ubers and ride in them. I don’t know how many more signals we need that the company simply doesn’t respect us or prioritize our safety.” Lacy clearly has a point: that a woman riding in a cab and, even more so, driving a cab can be vulnerable, and no safe or respectful advertising campaign would exploit that. It is, however, what happened next that is the kicker.

On Monday BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith reported comments that Uber senior vice president Emil Michael made at a private dinner on Friday night at the Waverly Inn in Manhattan. Michael, according to Smith, suggested that Uber could “fight back” against Uber’s journalist critics by hiring a team of opposition researchers to look into their personal lives and families and smear them. Michael went after Lacy in particular, according to Smith, saying women are more likely to get assaulted by taxi drivers than Uber drivers and that Lacy should be held “personally responsible” for any woman who deleted Uber from her phone and was then sexually assaulted.

Outrage followed the publication of Michael’s remarks. Michael, as Smith says in his original story, thought the dinner was private, and BuzzFeed made clear that the unnamed editor who attended the dinner was never told it was off the record. Kalanick took to Twitter (where else?) to distance Uber from Michael’s comments. And when appalled Uber users tried to cancel their accounts, they received, according to multiple reports, an e-mail from an “Uber Community Manager” seeking to talk them out of it. Senator Al Franken, chairman of the Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law, sent a letter to Kalanick asking about Uber’s privacy policy after allegations surfaced about Uber executives using company technology to track journalists.

To date, I’ve not been much of a BuzzFeed fan. With the exception of “The Kitten Covers,” I prefer my Internet reading with fewer cats (I know, that’s a very 2012 reference, but I’m owning it) but well done. Like almost all writing on sexism, this story isn’t only about gender; it’s about power: The power a man has over a women when she enters his taxicab or that a male passenger has over a female driver. (According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, taxi drivers are 20 times more likely to be murdered on the job than other workers.) The power bosses have over their employees in a high-risk and potentially lucrative business. The power an investor has over someone looking to fund her start-up. The power that a wealthy, well-connected executive who thinks he is speaking to a room of his peers has over a female journalist 3,000 miles away who dares to speak truth to power.

BuzzFeed broke the unspoken rules of power when Smith reported on what was said at the dinner. I doubt any BuzzFeed editors will be getting invited back any time soon to another tête-à-tête at the Waverly Inn. But what, as journalists, is the use of access if you don’t sometimes use it?

Investors have power too. They can demand more and better from companies — in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. I suspect Lacy’s transgression in the eyes of Uber was not so much that she called Kalanick an asshole or that she highlighted the irresponsibility of Uber’s sexist ad campaign; it’s that she bought investors into the conversation. In her October 22 blog post, she asked investors why they were continuing to support Uber and, by their silence, condone Kalanick, who in the past has made clear his, as she put it, “callous attitude to female riders.”

So far, one Uber investor, Ashton Kutcher, has taken to Twitter to defend the company. “What is so wrong about digging up dirt on shady journalist?” the actor asked. It took Twitter to point out that no one had suggested Uber’s critics were “shady” and that Kutcher was missing the point. Eventually, Kutcher backed down with “U r all right and I’m on the wrong side of this ultimately. I just wish journalists were held to the same standards as public figures.” Kutcher might want to focus less on his beef with journalism and more on holding accountable executives at a company — Uber — he has financed.

As Lacy points out, unlike social media companies, the new generation of tech start-ups are providing in-person services to people. I am potentially sharing my apartment or my car with you, a likely stranger. As a result, attitudes toward women don’t just matter in the board room or the office; they matter in the very product itself and to the consumer. If Uber now, at this delicate point in its life cycle, loses the confidence of consumers, then investors will not be far behind. Uber needs to grow up and start dealing with the sexism within its own organization.


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