If you thought tech companies were succeeding, even incrementally, at creating more inclusive workplaces, it’s not entirely your fault.
Headline after headline suggests that influential Silicon Valley executives understand they have a problem and are working to fix it. But a serious scandal like the one Uber now faces, following damning allegations of sexual harassment and corporate negligence, is all it takes to shatter the optimism. And this one likely won’t be the last.
The truth is that while some of the biggest names in tech — Facebook, Yahoo, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Airbnb — at least nominally support inclusivity by releasing annual diversity reports, we don’t know much about what they’re doing to change their male-dominated cultures. Dozens of other startups and companies stand idly by, perhaps happy to enjoy the glow of perceived progress without publicly working for it. Meanwhile, a female engineer like Susan J. Fowler, who recently documented her jaw-dropping experiences at Uber in a blog post, may find herself in an abusive work environment where sexual harassment goes unpunished and the victim becomes the pariah.
“If you have poor practices…these things are going to drive people — not just women — out of your organization.”
Inviting scrutiny, though, is risky for tech companies. They have to answer for stalled momentum as well as embarrassing claims that they can’t transform their own culture. But until the majority of them make a genuine, transparent commitment to diversity, reports of discrimination and harassment will continue to plague the industry.
The upshot is that when tech companies put their might behind setting new norms, they quickly become reality.
“That’s happened with free lunches and busses,” says Alaina Percival, CEO of Women Who Code, a nonprofit that supports female engineers. Those may be easy perks to promise employees, but they spread across the industry because they attract talent. Aggressively tackling the diversity problem has the same appeal, but doing it effectively, says Percival, requires sharing more than just hiring figures by gender and race and broad outlines of company policy.
What people really need to know is how companies, for example, detect biased language and decision-making in performance reviews, promotions and compensation — and how leadership reacts when it discovers those trends. Companies may be tracking those metrics privately, but Percival doesn’t know of any that have publicly released the information.
“If you have poor practices around performance reviews and harassment and promotion, these things are going to drive people — not just women — out of your organization,” says Percival.
Tracking those measures can reveal evidence that management stifles or is hostile to women and other staff members of underrepresented backgrounds. Human resources may be loathe to search for bias in the company’s ranks because it might present legal issues, but pretending it doesn’t exist is exactly how some talented employees flail, or are perceived as incompetent, while others become stars.
That probably sounds familiar to Fowler. In her blog post about Uber, she claims that after reporting her male manager to human resources for sexual harassment, she was given the option to stay on his team but would have no recourse if he wrote her a negative performance review.
2/ I’ve instructed our CHRO Liane to conduct an urgent investigation. There can be absolutely no place for this kind of behavior at Uber.
— travis kalanick (@travisk) February 20, 2017
Fowler decided to leave that team for another. When an internal “game-of-thrones political war” left her wanting to transfer again, that move was blocked for “undocumented performance problems.” After fruitlessly trying to contest that decision, Fowler says she learned her manager kept her because it made him look good amidst the flood of female engineers trying to leave their toxic teams. In other words, when it became convenient for a manager to prize diversity, Fowler was a useful prop.
Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, said on Twitter the behavior Fowler described was “abhorrent and against everything we believe in.” On Monday, Kalanick sent a memo to his employees outlining an urgent investigation of the matter and arguing that the ratio of female engineers it employs is comparable to Facebook and Google.
“I believe in creating a workplace where a deep sense of justice underpins everything we do,” he wrote.
“The more influential people in companies that work to change that, the faster you’ll change societal norms.”
Arianna Huffington, the media mogul and Uber board member, quickly became an integral part of the investigation. After an all-hands meeting on Tuesday, she acknowledged the long, difficult process of identifying the rot that may infest the company’s culture.
“I hope that by taking the time to understand what’s gone wrong and fixing it we can not only make Uber better but also contribute to improvements for women across the industry,” she said in a statement.
While that’s great spin, it’ll take a lot for Uber’s investigation to make a significant difference for women across tech. Instead, most will probably have to endure the status quo until something dramatic, like a scandal, embarrasses their own employer. Even that’s unlikely because a lot of women, Percival says, won’t share their experiences publicly because they fear the personal and professional repercussions.
Percival hopes that more executives and their staff embrace diversity in principle while also developing specific measures of success that go beyond hiring numbers — and sharing them with the industry. The blueprint for this already exists, including in materials provided by Project Include, an initiative cofounded by Ellen Pao that offers startups several key recommendations for integrating inclusivity and diversity into the DNA of their companies. (Pao famously sued the venture capital firm where she worked for discrimination and lost.)
“The more people, and the more influential people, in companies that work to change that,” Percival says, “the faster you’ll change societal norms.”
The best minds in tech would scoff at fixing a product piecemeal, based only on public outcry over its failings. Now it’s time for them to realize the same strategy won’t work for their company culture.