Why didn't the Uber board member speak up?

By Valentina Zarya
June 15, 2017

While words can wound, silence is often just as deadly.

On Tuesday, a sexist joke made by an Uber board member quickly went viral, leading to a swift apology and resignation by the offender, TPG Capital founder David Bonderman.

It wasn’t just that Bonderman’s joke—insinuating that women are chattier than men—was in poor taste; he made it during a meeting about Uber’s company culture, which has been called “toxic,” particularly to women. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss recommendations made by former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder’s law firm on ways to root out exactly the kind of sexist behavior Bonderman displayed.

The director’s comment was made in response to an observation from Arianna Huffington, a fellow Uber board member, who noted that research shows that bringing on a female director increases the odds of a second woman joining the board. Bonderman then said that adding a woman to the group would also result in “more talking.” Huffington laughed off the joke: “Oh, come on, David.”

Many of the follow-up tweets, comments, and think pieces about the incident focused on Bonderman and his unseemly comment. That Huffington—who has taken a leadership role during the company’s investigation and attempt at cultural reform—did nothing to address it in the moment seems to have gone under the radar.

In a March interview, Huffington insisted that Uber doesn’t have “systematic problem” with sexual harassment. Is it possible that, despite stories like the one about top exec Eric Alexander passing a rape victim’s private medical records around the office, she still believes that?

Huffington did not directly address Fortune‘s questions about the incident, but sent the following email statement:

David’s resignation from the board less than 12 hours after his remark was made was swift and definitive and sent a very powerful message both to the company and the world that sexism will not be tolerated at Uber at any level.

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If the startup’s saga has proved anything, it’s that one woman standing up to sexism can have tremendous impact. Huffington, too, has the opportunity to “send a powerful message.”

After all, the recent months-long investigation into the company’s culture, the firing of more than twenty high-level employees, and the hiring of multiple female executives all arguably stem from one blog post written by former Uber engineer Susan Fowler.

Fowler has since called the Uber investigation “all optics.” It’s a claim that gains legitimacy when you consider the difference between what Huffington has told the media—that she was “committed to making whatever changes are necessary” at Uber—and her response when faced with an example of the type of attitude she has pledged to fight.

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