Travis Kalanick. Picture: Getty

OPINION 

Travis Kalanick, bro-culture and the frightening monopoly of Uber

The Uber CEO is "stepping aside" after a damning report into a company culture of bullying and sexism. What does this mean for Silicon Valley, asks Marisa Bate

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By Marisa Bate on

Last night, Travis Kalanick, the 40-year-old CEO of Uber, one of Silicon Valley’s most successful and most troubled unicorns (a company worth over $1billon), announced in an email that: “I need to take some time off of the day-to-day to grieve my mother, whom I buried on Friday, to reflect, to work on myself, and to focus on building out a world-class leadership team”. Kalanick told his company he is going to work on "Travis 2.0".

Kalanick recently lost his mother in a tragic boating accident. He was also subject to an investigation, led by former Attorney General, Eric Holder, examining a culture of sexual harassment and bullying at Uber. The findings and recommendations were published to company staff yesterday. 

 Fowler wrote that on her first day, her new manager told her he was 'trying to stay out of trouble' but he was 'looking for women to have sex with'

 

Uber’s problems are no secret – and it’s even less of a secret they are linked to the top. A few examples: a video surfaced of Kalanick berating one of his own drivers for complaining of low pay, after which Kalanick admitted he needed to “grow up”. A leaked memo from 2013, sent by Kalanick, informed staff about the rules around having sex on a work trip: “Do not have sex with another employee UNLESS a) you have asked that person for that privilege and they have responded with an emphatic “YES! I will have sex with you” AND b) the two (or more) of you do not work in the same chain of command[…] Yes, that means that Travis will be celibate on this trip. #CEOLife #FML”. In a 2014 interview with GQ, he described the impact of his success on attracting women as “Boob-er”. 

But it was a post written by former software engineer employee, Susan Fowler, published in February of this year, that forced the board to acknowledge and act. Fowler wrote that on her first day, her new manager told her he was “trying to stay out of trouble” but he was “looking for women to have sex with”. HR pretty much responded with, “Well, like or lump it. And if you lump it, you’ll get a bad performance review, too”. This is just the tip of the iceberg in a jaw-dropping litany of complaints. 

The post went viral and an investigation was launched. Uber set up a helpline and received 200 complaints from other staff. Consequently, 20 people have been fired, including SVP, and Kalanick ally, Emil Michael. Dozens more have been disciplined and the Guardian reports that 57 remain under investigation. One member of staff was fired for allegedly obtaining a victim’s health records in order to disprove her claim of being raped in a Uber car in India. 

The report, which a board of directors including Arianna Huffington, has unanimously agreed to implement, reveals a frightening lack of basic competency for a $70bn company. Recommendations include HR receiving training on how to handle complaints, leadership programs and banning romantic relationships. There is, more positively, a focus on diversity, including elevating the head of diversity to the most senior level in the company, creating an employee advisory diversity board and the introduction of the “Rooney Rule”, requiring at least one female and one underrepresented minority candidate be identified for key positions.

'Once Silicon Valley was just hippies and then it became nerds and now it is guys obsessed with money and power'

 

The day before Kalanick made his statement, I spoke to Rowland Manthorpe, associate editor at Wired magazine. I wanted to know if Uber could survive without Kalanick, and therefore, how real the threat of getting rid of him actually was. (It’s still unclear exactly how long he’s “stepping aside” for). “I think the question you are really asking is to what extent do you need to be a dick to get ahead?” he told me.

This is a question that has been circulating Silcion Valley. Earlier this year, journalist Ian Leslie asked the same thing, as did Dan Lyons in the New York Times. Outsiders looking into the Valley seem to all be wondering the same thing: was Kalanick’s bullying, bulldozing leadership style, both in terms of interacting with individuals, and the cities around the world Uber invaded, key to creating such phenomenal success; creating a company that Manthorpe tells me is “undoubtedly” one of the most important in the world? 

Kalanick is the poster boy of CE-bro culture of Silicon Valley –the young-ish man, dressed like he’s going to a football game, behaving like he’s drunk at a football game; bravado and bullshit fuelling ambition to get whatever he can, however quickly he can. “This is a new thing in tech”, Manthorpe tells me. “Once Silicon Valley was just hippies and then it became nerds and now it is guys obsessed with money and power.” Kalanick represents a myriad of troubling traits about American corporatism: machismo, greed, exploitation, discrimination, the prioritising of the individual above all else. It is Neoliberalism on steroids. It can’t be a coincidence that Trump and Kalanick exist in the same era. And whilst there are the Trumps and the Kalanicks at the helm of power, women and minorities will always lose out. 

The problem of sexual harassment is widespread in the tech industry. A survey by Elephant in the Valley last year found that 60 per cent of women working in Silicon Valley had experienced it. Yet Uber is a monster among even the biggest tech giants. So will Kalanick’s temporary step down have an impact on that deeply ingrained sexist culture?  Dr Sue Black, a computer scientist, consultant, and government advisor, isn't completely convinced: “This won't put a stop to the bro culture but it does indicate a sea change in attitudes towards sexist behaviour.” She also believes it is essential how much the board and company take on the recommendations. “If Uber's actions are not swift, genuine and clearly championing diversity, then the days of Uber being the market leader may be numbered." And it’s not off to a flying start. A board member present at yesterday’s meeting made sexist comments about women “talking too much”. He has resigned. 

From talking to Manthorpe, it’s clear what is at stake. This is not just a story about Kalanick – whatever Kalanick’s ego permits him to believe. The staggering influence of Uber, it’s terrifying monopoly, and the fact it’s run by the attitudes of the unofficial CEbro-in-chief, throws up huge questions.

Not only is Uber a symbol of power and greed, but it’s a company that is at very the forefront of innovation and technology, changing not just our habits but the shape of our economy. It’s heavily invested the driverless car race, the latest frontier everyone’s scrambling to cross.  If Uber achieve that, they will be a private company with monumental influence. Who is keeping a lid on that? The government? Trump? What price are we prepared to pay for innovation and creation? America’s corporatism is undoubtedly tied to ideas of identity: it is the land of freedom to pursue your American dream. How do you stop that becoming a nightmare for everyone else?

When researching this article, I approached a female tech journalist to comment. But she refused. When I asked why she told me she was “scared of Uber”. 

I don't think she’s the only one. 

@marisajbate

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Travis Kalanick. Picture: Getty
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