Uber female engineers to Travis: ‘there’s a systemic problem with sexism here’

Following accusations of sexism being ingrained into the culture of ride-hailing company Uber, after a female ex-employ detailed her experience in a blog post earlier this week, CEO Travis Kalanick held a meeting yesterday with a group of 100+ Uber female engineers to listen to their concerns — and was told in clear terms the company has a systemic problem with sexism.

In an audio recording of the meeting, obtained by BuzzFeed, a clearly exasperated female engineer can be heard telling Kalanick there is a “systemic problem” with sexism in the company which Uber needs to address head-on.

“Can we stop saying if there’s a systemic problem here. I think it’s really important that we get there. I think for years in tech we’ve been saying if there’s a systemic problem there. And saying where’s the data to suggest that there’s a systemic problem,” she can be heard telling Kalanick.

“We have the data, we have the anecdotes, we have it happening in our own backyard. When are we going to get together and say that there is a systemic problem here — and stop using hypotheticals.”

Kalanick responds by asking whether the “starting point” is whether she believes that the two lawyers Uber has hired to interrogate claims of sexual harassment at the ride-hailing service are “going to get the truth”.

I think it starts with listening to your own people.

The engineer counters: “I don’t think it does start there, Travis. I think is starts before that, I think it starts with listening to your own people. And I think that over the past several years if we had already been listening to our people we would already believe this systemic problem was here.”

Uber has hired former Attorney General Eric Holder and Tammy Albarran, both partners at the law firm Covington & Burlington, conduct a review of sexual harassment claims at the ride-hailing service made by a former employee and engineer, Susan Fowler.

“I do not think that we need his help in admitting to ourselves, as a company and a family, that we have a systemic problem here,” adds the engineer — drawing a halting “fair enough, fair enough” response from Kalanick as the rest of the room breaks out into applause.

“Fair enough, I understand,” Kalanick reiterates, before the meeting lapses into an awkward silence.

After a moment, he starts up again, saying he “maybe” cut the previous speaker off too quickly — underlining how much he’s having to second-guess himself in what is evidently unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory for the Uber CEO.

Following Fowler’s blog post, the New York Times posted a report based on interviews with more than 30 current and former Uber employees that also paints a picture of Uber as an aggressive and unrestrained workplace, with details of additional incidents of sexual harassment, homophobic verbal abuse and cocaine misuse — piling more pressure on the company and its CEO.

In a portion of the audio recording of the meeting with Uber’s ‘Lady Eng’ group on Thursday, Kalanick appears emotional, as if on the verge of tears at one point — and later expressly described the discussion as “a little bit emotional for me”.

The recording also includes the sound of a baby crying in the background — presumably a child of one of the female engineers gathered in the room.

“There are people in this room who have experienced things that are incredibly unjust,” Kalanick continues. “And I understand. I don’t understand in a way that I have experienced it myself but I have had family members who have seen the kind of things that you guys have seen — here or elsewhere.

“So I empathize with you but I can never fully understand and I get that. I want to root out the injustice. I want to get at the people who are making this place a bad place. And you have my commitment to make that happen.

“And I know it doesn’t end there — I know that it’s not just about when somebody is physically harmed or what have you. It’s about the notion that even talking in the ways that I think some of you have been talked to that feels like that is part of the overall problem. So I just want to make it clear that I understand — I understand that this is bigger than the Susan situation.

“And I want you to know that I’m all about rooting this out. And being very aggressive about that. While also being supportive and empathic — and trying to build that support and empathy through the organization.”

“I’m sorry,” he adds, reiterating his concern of having cut off the prior speaker too soon. “I’m sure it’s emotional for some of you too.”

While Kalanick’s sentiments — as expressed at this meeting, to this audience of female Uber employees, and with the company HR director in attendance — might sound like the right ones, it’s unfortunate he also uses such opaque phrasing when referring directly to sexual harassment, and to the specific allegations made by Fowler — clumsily dubbing it “the Susan situation”, as if implying her experience is an irritant to be boxed up and jettisoned from Uber Inc as quickly as possible. (Though it’s possible he’s following lawyers’ orders in choice of wording, given sexism allegations are in the process of being investigated.)

He’s also a business leader who is — by reputation — more comfortable being aggressive than empathic, using muscular verbal posturing to build Uber’s global brand visibility and bag users with demonstrable success. However empathy looks to be a far steeper personal learning curve for Kalanick, who has himself previously been accused of using language that objectifies women.

Perhaps the most uncomfortable question Kalanick personally has to face at this point is whether the corporate culture of aggression, which he has actively encouraged as a strategy to drive Uber’s growth, has also helped fuel an internal culture of sexism — landing him in a room full of angry female engineers.

We’ve reached out to Uber for comment and will update this post with any response.