SAN FRANCISCO — Last year, software engineer Elizabeth Ford got what many young engineers in Silicon Valley once considered the dream job pitch: Would she be interested in working at Uber?
Ford was blunt with the Uber recruiter, telling her the company was immoral and asking not to be contacted again. “As an engineer in the Bay Area, I feel we’ve pretty much turned on Uber,” said Ford, 27, who works at restaurant start-up Eatsa.
On Tuesday, Uber said it would be taking 47 wide-reaching steps to address recent controversies about its anything-goes, cutthroat corporate culture, including allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior — accusations that have made Ford and many other tech workers, particularly women, skeptical of joining the company.
Ford said those steps did not change her views.
“The company still has so much toxicity,” Ford said by email that evening. “They would need to change everything about their culture and how they operate to make me want to work there.
Silicon Valley recruiters, tech workers and analysts agree that it will continue to be challenging for Uber to rehabilitate its reputation in the tech industry and return to the days when the company enjoyed almost unfettered access to the region’s talent pipeline.
The company’s months-long investigation resulted in recommendations for mandatory leadership training, formalized handling of employee complaints and new limits on alcohol and illegal drugs at company events. Uber’s board also announced that chief executive Travis Kalanick would take an indefinite leave of absence. Earlier this month, more than 20 Uber employees were fired.
These are perhaps the darkest days in the eight-year history of the company, which invented a ride-hailing app that disrupted transportation in cities around the globe and boasts the highest value of any private tech firm in the world at an estimated $69 billion.
Concerns about Uber’s ability to change seemed to be exacerbated Tuesday when — hours after the company promised to do better — a member of the board of directors was forced to resign after making a sexist comment during a staff meeting to discuss the efforts.
Billionaire David Bonderman apologized that day after he said that research shows that having more women on the board of directors would lead to “more talking.”
The comment came in response to a remark by fellow board member Arianna Huffington that “there’s a lot of data that shows when there’s one woman on the board, it’s much more likely that there will be a second woman on the board.”
Although nobody can put precise numbers on how many potential employees are avoiding the firm, Uber’s troubles are remarkable even in an industry that has struggled for years with the underrepresentation of women and minorities. Uber released its first employee diversity report in March, revealing that women accounted for just 15.4 percent of its tech workforce and 36.1 percent of all employees.
“I don’t know any woman who is dying to work for Uber,” Silicon Valley recruiter Y-Vonne Hutchinson said.
Perceptions of Uber have created a rift in the tech world. Many workers want to join the company, which is widely considered one of the most innovative and exciting tech firms. Recently, Uber announced that Bozoma Saint John, an African American woman, was leaving Apple to join Uber in the newly created position of chief brand officer. And Harvard Business School professor Frances Frei was hired to address Uber’s leadership problems.
But for others, the company carries a huge stigma.
For the past year, some female engineers have been posting on social media their rejections of Uber’s unsolicited recruitment attempts, creating a snapshot of the company’s talent travails. An online campaign called “Dear Uber Recruiter” expressed many of the complaints. Some of the women gave interviews with The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity, saying they had faced online harassment after posting messages on social media.
One woman showed the rejection email she sent Uber. It opened with, “I would never work for such a sexist, evil company as Uber.”
Other women in Silicon Valley, as well as some men, told The Post of their concerns about working at Uber. Worries about Uber’s workplace culture have spread even to recruiters at other tech companies considering hiring from within Uber’s ranks.
“It’s a huge ding on them for their motivations and personality,” a former manager at a large Silicon Valley start-up said on interviewing candidates from Uber. She spoke on the condition of anonymity so she could speak candidly.
Uber did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
After simmering for years, Uber’s troubles burst into public view this year with a blog post by a former Uber engineer named Susan Fowler.
She described a workplace where lines were regularly crossed and boorish behavior was tolerated. Fowler said her boss propositioned her on her first day at work. When she complained to the company’s human resources department, she wrote, the incident was played down, and she was encouraged to switch departments. In another incident, she alleged that all of the team’s male engineers were given leather jackets as a company perk, but the female engineers were not because there were too few of them to qualify for a bulk discount.
Her post went viral, sparking discussion inside and outside the company about how Uber treats its female workers.
Fowler’s blog post came after years of questionable conduct by Uber executives. Kalanick once was quoted describing his company as “Boob-er” because its success attracted women to him. A senior executive had floated a plan at a dinner party attended by a BuzzFeed reporter to dig into the personal lives of journalists, including female writers, who wrote unflattering articles about the company.
In response to Fowler’s blog post, Kalanick immediately tweeted that the allegations were “abhorrent & against everything we believe in” and subsequently announced that an investigation into Uber’s workplace would be led by Eric H. Holder Jr., the former U.S. attorney general.
On June 11, almost four months later, Uber’s board of directors voted to adopt all of the recommendations from Holder’s report. A few days before that, Uber said it had fired 20 workers for sexual harassment and discrimination, bullying and other workplace infractions uncovered by the report.
Fowler dismissed the company’s announcements of steps to address its internal culture. “It’s all optics,” she wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.
All major tech firms have struggled with hiring and retaining female and minority workers, a finding supported by numerous studies. The topic is regularly discussed, pushed by many corporate leaders and addressed by company initiatives. Earlier this month, former first lady Michelle Obama spoke at an Apple developer’s conference and urged the industry to “make room” for more female tech workers.
“Whether it’s Google or Uber or Facebook or Intel, we have seen how incredibly difficult it is to turn around a big company,” said Freada Kapor Klein, who, along with her husband, Mitch Kapor, was an early investor in Uber.
On Tuesday, after the Uber report’s recommendations were released, the two Silicon Valley financiers wrote an open letter saying that they believe Uber’s problems, while extreme, are not so different from problems at other large tech firms. But they wrote that Uber’s reaction “showed sincerity in action, and we are hopeful that their actions will continue to meet the aspirations of this report.”
Kapor Klein, who runs the Kapor Center for Social Impact, has made it her mission to turn Silicon Valley into a more welcoming place for women and minorities. Last month, she co-wrote a study based on a poll of more than 2,000 people who left technology jobs, finding that feelings of “unfairness or mistreatment” were driving people from the industry. And although diversity training and other efforts help, “CEOs have to be really willing to step up and explain why this is a business issue,” she said.
Joelle Emerson, who runs Paradigm, a San Francisco firm that helps tech companies such as Slack and Pinterest with diversity efforts, said she was at first optimistic that Uber could change its workplace culture.
“But I’m less confident in that now,” Emerson recently said.
She was dismayed by recent reports that a top Uber executive, Eric Alexander, had flown to India to obtain the confidential medical records of a woman who said she was raped by an Uber driver. Alexander shared the medical records with other top Uber leaders, including Kalanick, because they didn’t believe the woman’s claim and feared it was part of a smear campaign by a competitor, according to Uber. Alexander left Uber earlier this month.
Emerson said she was floored by the revelation. To her, it showed the depth of the discrimination against women — that a rape victim was doubted.
“It is so, so quintessentially rape culture that when a customer is sexually assaulted, you make a trip around the world to disprove that,” Emerson said.
She said that she was impressed by the Uber report’s recommendations but that success can be judged only by how the suggestions are implemented and followed up.
Ford, the engineer who turned down Uber, said women in technology increasingly watch out for one another, giving warnings and advice about which companies are welcoming to women and which ones to avoid. Uber, she said, is not the only company with problems. But it seems to be the worst.
“I am skeptical that they can change,” Ford said, “but I really hope they prove me wrong.”
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