Economy First Look

How Uber is responding to a sexual harassment scandal

The case puts further scrutiny on Silicon Valley’s enduring problems with gender discrimination.

A woman walks past the company logo of the internet car service, Uber, in San Francisco, Dec. 16, 2014.
Eric Risberg/AP/File
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Uber is trying to mitigate fallout over one former engineer’s claims of sexual harassment by promising to release data about gender diversity among its employees and tapping former Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate sexism in its workplace.

The announcements came after a widely circulated blog post by Susan Fowler, a onetime site reliability engineer who left the company in December, portrayed a human-resources department that turned a deaf ear to her complaints of a manager’s sexual proposition and enabled a culture of sexism to prevail at the company – even sparking an exodus of female employees.

In an email circulated on Monday to employees and members of the press, chief executive officer Travis Kalanick wrote that Mr. Holder would be joined on a panel by a group that included Uber board member Arianna Huffington and Tammy Albarran, Holder’s partner at law firm Covington & Burling, to conduct “an independent review into the specific issues relating to the work place environment” raised by Ms. Fowler’s claims, according to VentureBeat.

The case puts further scrutiny on Silicon Valley’s enduring problems with gender discrimination, at a time when many publicly traded tech companies have taken steps to be more transparent about how women fit in among their ranks. 

As The Christian Science Monitor reported in 2015, gender diversity on corporate boards has crept upward in recent years, though women of color remain virtually unrepresented at the highest levels:

“I think there’s a higher level of consciousness [about diversity] now in the Valley, which I think is exciting and very welcome,” says Leela Srinivasan, the chief marketing officer at Lever, a San Francisco-based firm that provides recruiting technology to a range of companies.

But, she says, fostering a culture of inclusion for diverse job candidates, especially those new to the tech world, is an ongoing effort.

“If you see female leaders, in positions of power or encouraging and fostering talent coming up, that leads to an environment where more diverse talent feels they have a place in the company,” she says.

For Uber, the decision to release a diversity report in coming months would put it in league with publicly traded companies like Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft, who have embraced the step as a simple transparency measure. And it seems to be prompted by Fowler’s claim that unfair working conditions took the percentage of women who held the same position as her from 25 percent down to just 3 percent in a year, amid “organizational chaos.”

Mr. Kalanick disputed those figures in the email to employees, writing that women made up 15.1 percent of the company’s engineers, product managers, and scientists, and comparing it to lower percentages of competitors like Twitter, Facebook, and Google. 

“I believe in creating a workplace where a deep sense of justice underpins everything we do,” he wrote.

The case is the latest bit of controversy to ensnare the Uber CEO, who announced in early February he would resign from President Trump’s business advisory council following an online campaign to delete the app.

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