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July 28, 2017

Will Uber’s new women executives bring reform?

By ITU News

HP Enterprise CEO Meg Whitman took to Twitter late Thursday to quell speculation that she would be the next CEO of the global riding-hailing giant Uber.

The former eBay and Hewlett-Packard CEO had reportedly emerged as a front-runner for the role due, in part, to her experience taking a Silicon Valley company public and her political relationships that could aid in regulatory battles.

The move would have been a major boost to Uber’s efforts to build its reputation on gender issues after a spate of allegations of harassment and an unfriendly work environment – and last month’s resignation of CEO Travis Kalanick.

Despite Whitman’s clarification, however, Uber has recently put women in key leadership positions. The moves could help turn things around, but what else needs to be done at Uber – and at other top tech companies – who are seeking to address the gender divide so prevalent in the industry?

“Putting women into executive positions in Silicon Valley is certainly important, [but] I don’t think what Uber is doing is nearly enough,” said Wayne Rash, senior columnist of eWEEK’s Washington Bureau in an interview with ITU News, adding that real change will come from more women in operational roles throughout the company. “With the exception of the woman who is Chief Legal Officer at Uber, most of these are not operational positions. What is missing is a series of highly placed women in operational functions … the day-to-day ‘here’s how we operate stuff’, where they deal with the employees and the Uber drivers, […] as part of the whole operational structure of Uber.”

The new women in charge

Bozoma Saint John, previously from Apple Music, who is now Uber’s Chief Brand Officer, has come on board to change the world’s perception of Uber.

“Being present as a black woman — just present — is enough to help exact some of the change that is needed and some that we’re looking for,” Saint John told the The New York Times in a profile published last weekend.

Frances Frei, former Senior Associate Dean of Executive Education at Harvard Business School, has been hired as the new Senior Vice President of leadership and is commuting from her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts for her role as a leader for “company strategy and planning; organizational transformation and design; management and leadership; coaching, supporting and developing a world-class leadership team; and articulating and helping to architect and adapt [Uber’s] cultural philosophy”.

Salle Yoo, who has been promoted from General Counsel to Chief Legal Officer, is an equal pay advocate who has been known to ask HR to rerun job proposals letters that she feels does not offer equal pay. An email from Kalanick announcing the promotion, outlines the expectation that she will increase diversity at Uber and build a strong cultural foundation.

Chief HR Officer Liane Hornsey, a former VP at Google, joined the firm before the controversies surfaced. And former Walmart executive and Nestle CFO Wan Ling Martello joined Uber’s board last month. She is expected to address some of the recommendations detailed in an independent study commissioned to “improve [Uber’s] culture, promote fairness and accountability, and establish processes and systems to ensure the mistakes of the past will not be repeated.”

Uber has denied that the recent hires were due to external pressures, saying that the timing was coincidental and that the hiring process for executives take a long time.

There could also be more women appointed to senior leadership positions after the CEO role is settled.

So how does Uber compare to other Silicon Valley tech companies?

As of March 2017, Uber’s percentage of total women overall (41%) and at the management level (22%) are on par with the likes of Google and Facebook. For technical positions, women at Uber make up 15.4% of the total – lagging behind Google and Facebook, as well as Airbnb at 25.63%, although its percentage is slightly higher than Lyft at 13%. Gender imbalances at small-to-mid sized Silicon Valley startups are common; a Financial Times analysis of 500 tech start-ups in the San Francisco Bay Area of 100 employees using machine-learning powered data and analytics platform Craft.co’s research on Gender Diversity in early-stage Silicon valley technology companies concluded that only 23% of total employees are female.

“We need to build organizations that are inclusive for everyone and, most importantly, reflective of the society we want to have.” – Monique J. Morrow, President of The Humanized Internet

So what can be done? What works?

Georgene Huang, CEO and Co-Founder of Fairygodboss, a women-specific job reviewing platform, explained to ITU News that many companies have voluntarily set goals for their leadership teams to be gender equal because they believe it to be good business practice in addition to the right thing to do.

“Setting publicly [available] targets is one way to hold oneself accountable but there are also mechanisms like the one that Johnson & Johnson have put in place,” says Huang. “For example, J&J’s top managers have a portion of their bonuses tied to meeting certain diversity metrics, including how many women they hired in the previous year. Intel, […] has an employee referral program that pays out more of a financial incentive if an employee refers a diverse candidate who is hired. These are just a couple examples (and there are many others) of how companies can implement more aggressive hiring of women.”

Why it matters

In an increasingly global and connected world, diverse companies perform better.

Companies with a diverse workforce mirroring the targeted end user population increase their likelihood of innovating effectively for the end user as they are 158% more likely to understand the targeted users, according to research from the Center for Talent Innovation.

LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co. confirmed in a report that, despite commitment to gender equality at an all-time high, women “get less access to the people, input, and opportunities that accelerate careers,” resulting in a steep drop-off with seniority. This disparity is even more pronounced for women of color, according to this and many other reports.

Many have attributed Silicon Valley’s predominantly male startup culture to be partly due to the fact that many of them start off with a small team of technical staff drawn from peers in Computer Science programs in university – and gender imbalances within the companies are not addressed until it is too late.

This lack of representation is a problem. A study conducted by the Center for Talent Innovation covering Science, Engineering and Technology fields in Brazil, China, and India and the U.S. cited several “antigens”, such as isolation, “scarcity of effective sponsors” and “hostile macho cultures” which contribute to an environment of subtle and unspoken bias keeping women away from leadership roles. A significant portion of the women in the study reported feeling stalled in their careers and were considering quitting their jobs within the year – despite saying that they love their work.

To move forward for a more inclusive future, there is a lot that can be done, says Monique J. Morrow, President and Co-Founder of The Humanized Internet and former Chief Technology Officer of Services at Cisco.

“Recognition of the overall issue is the first step, however this topic is far more complex,” Morrow told ITU News. “We need to build organizations that are inclusive for everyone and, most importantly, reflective of the society we want to have. Humanistic values are fundamental to whatever we do, whether in the technology world or elsewhere.”

By Dahlia Lian, ITU News

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