Tech firms slammed after new Uber sexism row

Fair’s fare: Uber’s ethical conduct has been questioned after yet another sexism scandal. © Getty

Another damaging row over sexism has broken out at Uber following a meeting that was supposed to deal with that exact problem. Are all top tech firms operating in an “ethical vacuum”?

A meeting of all Uber employees had been called. The topic for discussion: a major report into the taxi app company’s culture which concluded it had a serious problem with sexism, following claims of widespread sexual harassment and discrimination and a series of scandals.

Arianna Huffington, the formidable founder of the Huffington Post and only female Uber board member, addressed the assembled staff. She announced that Travis Kalanick, Uber’s CEO who has been at the centre of the controversy, would be taking an indefinite leave of absence.

She went on to add that a new female board member had been appointed. Studies showed, she said, that one woman being on a company’s board made it more likely a second would join. So far so positive.

But then, according to leaked audio of the meeting, board member David Bonderman, who was sitting next to Huffington, leant over to tell her: “Actually what it shows is that it’s much more likely to be more talking.”

According to people present, the room was “aghast”. How could a senior board member make such a sexist comment, during a meeting about how to deal with endemic sexism?

Bonderman has since apologised and resigned, but headlines are once again full of accusations of sexism against Uber.

But some commentators have gone further. Writing in The Times, Hugo Rifkind laments the “ethical vacuum” of not just Uber, but many of Silicon Valley’s top tech firms. Apple causes “environmental disaster” by mining materials for its “horrible” iPhones factories.

Facebook is beset by scandals on fake news and inappropriate content, Amazon is deadly to high-street retailers, while Google makes copyright law an irrelevance.

“Do we care?” Rifkind asks. “Do we hell.” We still buy iPhones, and use all of the great services these companies provide.

The companies themselves often believe they are nobly forging ahead, leading the way into a new digital age. They are unlikely to check themselves.

In Europe, there are rumblings of government regulation to bring tech firms into line. But shouldn’t we, as consumers, take responsibility and vote with our feet?

Tech crunch

Yes, say some. These companies have no moral compass and can only be corrected by a show of force by consumers. Campaigns such as #DeleteUber in the US saw hundreds of thousands reject the app and switch to competitors. We need to scale this up to show these companies who’s boss.

Get real, say others. People are not going to delete helpful services like Uber, let alone stop buying iPhones. Government regulation is the only thing that can reign in these unicorns, but even that is a questionable idea given the amazing things they can create when left to their own devices.

You Decide

  1. Should we boycott tech companies if they do things we disapprove of?
  2. Do companies have a responsibility to act ethically, even if this restricts progress?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are starting a company. In pairs, draw up a code of ethics that your company would have to abide by.
  2. Research and write a report on four major tech companies detailing any controversies they have got involved in and how they reacted to them.

Some People Say...

“We should put innovation before regulation.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Uber has had well-documented problems with sexism, as acknowledged by its report. Other big tech companies have often caused controversy by not appearing to grasp unintended effects caused by their products, such as the spreading of fake news on Facebook.
What do we not know?
At what point consumers and governments will care enough to do something about this. Consumers currently seem happy to carry on using tech firms’ products and services, but governments, particularly in Europe, are talking about regulation to protect consumers and uphold standards.

Word Watch

Major report
Uber commissioned the report, authored by US attorney-general Eric Holder and lawyer Tammy Albarran, after allegations of sexism from a former software engineer.
Scandals
Recently it emerged that an Uber executive had obtained the medical records of a woman who had been sexually assaulted by an Uber driver in India in a bid to discredit her.
Leave of absence
Last month, Kalanick’s mother was killed in a sailing accident that also left his father hospitalised.
Sexist comment
The comment implied that women talk too much. In fact, studies have found that on average women speak less than men in meetings.
#DeleteUber
Uber turned off its surge pricing during an hour-long strike by New York taxi drivers at JFK airport to oppose President Trump’s travel ban. This was seen by some as strikebreaking and led to the #DeleteUber hashtag.
Unicorns
In finance, this refers to a startup company worth over $1 billion, so called because of the shape of the graph showing their value, and their rarity.

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