How Having Female Editors Shaped My Book on Uber

May 23, 2017

When I first submitted my manuscript for Wild Ride: Inside Uber’s Quest for Domination I included a section on Uber’s complicated relationship with women. CEO Travis Kalanick was seen as a leader of the “bro” culture in Silicon Valley that included few women and left them feeling barred from the center of action. My two editors at Portfolio/Penguin, Stephanie Frerich and Merry Sun, felt that my discussion of women and Uber left plenty to be desired. As young women who take taxis, Ubers, and the like in New York City, they pushed me to consider another perspective—that many women fear getting into an Uber.

I beefed up the section, including adding a gripping account from Boston.com writer Allison Pohle, which you’ll find in the excerpt below. I still give Uber its due, including that many people feel safer in an Uber because the ride can be tracked. Nevertheless, when Susan Fowler, the former Uber engineer, dropped her bombshell of a blog post alleging rampant gender discrimination at the company, I already has a meaty section in my book in which to insert it. As I note in my acknowledgements, there’s only one name on the spine, but there is a huge team behind any successful book. This is just one example of how editors Frerich and Sun made my book immeasurably better, more comprehensive, and timelier.

Kalanick had a particular problem with how he spoke about women. It didn’t help that Silicon Valley’s was a male-dominated “bro” culture, the alpha males being computer programmers and venture capitalists, two fields where women were scarce. The most feminist of men in the Valley would come to understand that unconscious bias was rife in the tech community.

But Kalanick had little patience for such nuance. Many of Uber’s top executives were women: its head of North American operations, its expansion chief, its general counsel, to name a few. An equal-opportunity manager, perhaps, Kalanick couldn’t escape his alpha-male reputation. With a patois that reflected the hip-hop lyrics of his San Fernando Valley youth, he spoke approvingly of being a “baller” (Urban Dictionary: “a thug that has made it to the big time”) and once compared his role arranging rides to being a “frickin’ pimp.” (He was referring to cars, not women. But the word choice was telling.) He had a habit of comparing his company, whether Red Swoosh or Uber, to a spouse, sometimes an abusive one. The metaphor made a weird kind of sense from the perspective of a passionate entrepreneur but sounded odd out of context. In early 2014, he acknowledged to a GQ writer, one bent on capturing the testosterone-tinged aura of the go-go Uber experience, that his newfound success improved his desirability with the ladies. Kalanick joked that he could now land women as easily as Uber could summon cars. “Yeah, we call that Boob-er,” GQ quoted him saying.

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Uber would never be able to shake the accusation of endemic misogyny. Since Uber began its rapid expansion into cities all over the world, it has been dogged by reports that women have been propositioned, threatened, and even assaulted by drivers. For example, in 2016, a journalist at the Boston.com Web site named Allison Pohle wrote a harrowing account of an Uber ride she took. She got into a car after matching its license plate with the car designated in her app, as Uber advises passengers to do. The car had only two doors, in violation of Uber’s policies, and it was more convenient for her to sit in the front seat. The driver locked the doors and propositioned Pohle, which she described in detail in the article. Pohle was able to get out of the car physically unharmed—but terrified. Furthermore, when she reached out to Uber, a customer-service representative apologized and gave her a $30 credit—but initially failed to confirm that the driver had been punished or kicked off the platform.

The sentiment also reached into the workforce of Uber itself. In February 2017, a former Uber engineer named Susan Fowler posted a story online titled “Reflecting on One Very, Very Strange Year at Uber.” She described allegations of having been sexually harassed by her male superior and then having her complaints ignored by Uber’s human resources department. Kalanick took to Twitter to call the allegations “abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for and believes in.” He also said the post was the first he’d heard of Fowler’s complaint, and he formed a committee that included board member Arianna Huffington and former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder to investigate.

None of this improved Uber’s reputation among women, who already were questioning the company’s record. True, Uber offered advantages over taxis in that the ride could be tracked, the identity of the driver recorded. As well, the human condition is what it is: Uber drivers are hardly the only people to behave badly toward women. And yet the very newness of the “platform” that Uber enabled exacerbated the problem. Taxi drivers are regulated everywhere, and most cities post a complaint number prominently in the backseat of the cab along with the driver’s ID number. Uber repeatedly would appear to be insufficiently responsive to such complaints.

Indeed, as a new and private company it frequently was unresponsive to all sorts of gripes, and not just from frightened passengers. But because of its size and prominence, Uber had a tough time shaking the notion that women should shun it. Indeed, the news site BuzzFeed published a report that claimed that an analysis of Uber’s customer-service complaints showed thousands of mentions of the words “rape” and “sexual assault.” The company disputed BuzzFeed’s report at length, noting that the word “rate” often was misspelled as “rape” and also that the letters spelling out “rape” appear in names like “Draper.” Uber said that in a three-year period it analyzed data, it found 170 instances alleging sexual assault, or 1 in every 3.3 million trips.

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Excerpted from WILD RIDE: Inside Uber’s Quest for World Domination, by Adam Lashinsky, to be published on May 23, 2017, by Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Adam Lashinsky.

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