It’s time for Tone at the Top on Diversity – or Why Uber is Yet Another Wakeup Call for Boards and CEOs in Tech

 Uber is just the latest company caught in the act of discriminating against women in it’s workforce. Sadly for many minorities in tech this is an old story.

As Ellen Pao writes in today’s Time article it is an indication of “tech’s existential rot”. In a world that “started off seemingly harmlessly by white men funding white men with few exceptions. When only white men were given opportunities, only white men were successful. White men went on hiring only white men, because it seemed to be a common trait of successful employees. Then investors who were white men decided only white men could be successful and doubled down on white men. White men who succeeded in the system decided it worked and saw no need for change. Fifty years later investors can’t break out of that pattern.”

But it is time for the pattern to break for many reasons. There is mounting evidence that diverse teams build better products – they are more likely to understand the buying behavior of their customers if they reflect the customer. There is also growing research that companies with diverse boards and management teams produce better returns for investors -so now some investors are encouraging boards to take on diverse board members.

But more importantly it is no longer acceptable for companies to allow employee harassment to continue while HR departments stand by or worse become part of the problem, as Uber is finding out to it’s detriment. The #deleteuber campaign has been due for a while and will hurt. (note, I switched to Lyft a year ago after reading about the leadership culture at Uber.)

So if it is no longer acceptable at the board level, in the executive team, and in the engineering ranks what can we do to make change happen faster?

I have worked in the “bro” culture of tech in Silicon Valley for more than 30 years. I have repeatedly experienced unconscious bias (sometimes not so unconscious ), being underestimated, being dismissed, being propositioned etc. and I have worked hard to over come it as I became a CEO who grew my company through a successful IPO and acquisition. And as I have done so I have been open and public about my wish to be a role model to other women that you can be technical, and be in a leadership role, and have a family in the technology industry. It’s possible to do and be happy.

I was conscious of the challenge I was facing from day one when I was one of only a handful (I think 5) women majoring in math at Cambridge in my year, out of about 300. And so, to be a role model, I have always tried to hold a leadership position in any situation I am in, especially if everyone else in the room is male.

It is so clear to me now that the problem we have in tech is not a pipeline problem. Yes, we need more little girls to like computers, and more little african american boys to believe they can be Mark Zuckerberg, but we have plenty already who enter the tech world. But the women leave in droves within 10 years because the environment is hostile. Our problem is keeping women in an industry that makes life difficult for them.

It is time to set the tone at the top. To insist that boards have at least 2 or 3 women on them (not just none, or the “we have one so we’re done” you see on so many boards). There are now several recruiters who specialize in finding qualified women with the right experience for boards. For example Beth Stewart of Trewstar would tell you there is no shortage of qualified women to serve, but a shortage of boards who think this is an important issue.

It is also time for boards to insist that the CEO builds a diverse leadership team. This takes real work to find diverse, qualified executives but it can be done in most fields. Uber is just one of many examples where a mostly male leadership team is simply deaf and blind to the issues facing their female employees.

“Tone at the top” is an expression used by boards when reviewing the results of the annual audit. They discuss whether the management team is committed to honest, ethical behavior and whether they operate with integrity. The discussion is important to sign off the financials – after all what audit committee chair would want to sign off the financial filings if he did not believe the CEO and CFO had integrity with the numbers?

It’s time for companies to embrace a “tone at the top” discussion around equal opportunity for all employees. It is time for every board to pay attention to the diversity statistics within their companies. How many women are employed at every level, has the company done an audit of pay across gender to check that women are not paid less than men for the same job? Are the percentages of women in leadership growing or shrinking? It is just not hard for HR to run reports and track progress over time – but it takes a serious discussion on the importance of diversity from the board down to build a world class company in the 21st century.

I am hoping this is what Eric Holder and my friend Arianna Huffington will now do for Uber.

My Personal Journey

When Uber Made Me Think About Terrorism

Uber and terrorism. Not two things I would have thought about together until today.

Under normal circumstances I’m a happy, relatively frequent, Uber user. I grab taxis for short trips around NY but when I know my ride is going to be 10 minutes or more I’ll whip out the app and make the request. The car shocks are usually better and I am less likely to arrive at my destination green to the gills than I do from riding with the average New York cabbie.

So today started out as a normal Uber experience headed to JFK Airport. Make the request, 5 minute wait, the driver arrives… but he’s very young… maybe I should have stopped and thought then. A few blocks driving down a crowded NY street and my driver pulls over and turns off the engine. He then said he needed to go and get money from his brother for the toll. He got out, took his phone but left the car keys and took off out of sight.

Now I am a polite customer. I tip well and often chat amiably with my drivers. I want to support them making a living.

But when the driver leaves how long is a polite period to wait for him to come back? Will he come back? It’s coming up to July 4, the terror risk is high, the SWAT teams are already on the NY streets, and here I am sitting in an abandoned car at a busy intersection! And it’s an SUV so lots of room to pack explosives. Of course my brain went into analysis mode – an interesting problem I think – Jack Bauer would know what to do. Stay, go, call 911, find and dismantle the bomb with my nailfile? A few seconds into my internal debate and I decided if the car was going to explode I probably couldn’t get away anyway, and it would be a quick death, so I decided to give the kid 5 minutes.

But I couldn’t just sit there, so I tweeted the question
and got a prompt answer from Uber support

That didn’t help! Despite trying every screen I could not see where to send Support in-app in the Uber app. Clearly a usability issue in a crisis!

At 4 minutes I got smart and decided English politeness be damned… and got out of the car. I lifted my case out of the trunk and began walking determinedly away – towards my driver running back with a $20 bill. He begged me to get back in and clearly I’m a sucker.

Needless to say, when we got to JFK I gave him a piece of my mind in no uncertain terms. Leaving your passenger alone in the car for 5 minutes was very uncool.

Reflecting back, the whole experience will make me think twice about using Uber again. My driver was not the person registered with Uber but in the traffic melee getting to the car I didn’t stop to check that it was the same guy. His car was the right color but looking back on it now, not the right type. But I was not used to being concerned about my safety so I did not think to check carefully. Silly really. There are enough Uber assault cases now that I should. And why do I assume it’s safe to get into an unlicensed stranger’s car in New York during a terrorism alert?

The bottom line is my experience changes my view of the Uber brand and the service. Do I really want to use a service where now I feel I have to check the details when the driver arrives before I get in the car? Though it’s clearly easy for the driver to not be the driver Uber has on file. And do I want the stress of refusing the car if it’s not the right driver with the unleasantness that could go with it? Probably not. Until the next time I can’t get a cab.