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Why does Silicon Valley have a sexism problem? | The World Weekly

I’m like fire and brimstone sometimes,” Travis Kalanick, co-founder of ride-sharing juggernaut Uber told Vanity Fair in 2014. Despite transforming Uber into a $70 billion company in just eight years, Mr. Kalanick’s inflammatory approach has come back to haunt him.

Uber was created in Mr. Kalanick’s image, but the company’s board has now decided that image is in dire need of repair. With the company reeling from a litany of sexual harassment allegations, Mr. Kalanick has embarked on an indefinite leave of absence. It is unclear when, and in what capacity, he will return to the wheel.

Mr. Kalanick’s departure has been prompted by an investigation into Uber’s working culture by Eric Holder, the former attorney general. Uber retained Mr. Holder’s law firm to examine allegations of sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the company, prompted by Susan Fowler, a former employee, accusing the company of “rampant misogyny” in an explosive blog post in February. The report calls on Uber to “review and reallocate” Mr. Kalanick’s responsibilities.

“It’s a start,” Cindy Schipani, a professor of business law at the University of Michigan’s business school, told The World Weekly. “It's critical to have leadership with high integrity and who will not tolerate the behaviors that have been alleged to run rampant at the company." 

Hopes of an immediate culture change were however quickly dashed. During a meeting presenting Mr. Holder’s report to Uber employees on Tuesday, board member Ariana Huffington argued that once a company had one woman on its board it was more likely to have a second. A male board member quickly interjected: “Actually, what it shows is that it’s much more likely to be more talking.”

No rules, big egos

Uber’s problems, while extensive, are not unique. Silicon Valley as a whole has a serious sexism problem.

In 2015, a survey of 210 women working in the Valley found that 60% had experienced unwanted sexual advances. Only 21% of American tech executives are female (the figure in other industries is 36%), and according to Bloomberg just 7% of the founders of tech startups in the US that have raised over $20 million are women. 

Accusations of gender bias have rocked some of the Valley’s most successful progeny. In April, the Department of Labour accused Google of burying the fact that it pays female employees less than men. Three days earlier, the company had boasted on Twitter that it had “closed the gender pay gap globally”.

“Silicon Valley still tends to be predominantly male,” Professor Schipani explains. “Many companies tend to have a ‘no rules’ culture - to spur creativity and the ‘next big thing’. This culture seems to breed incredibly big egos with an attitude that all rules, including rules of ethical behaviour, are inapplicable.”

Innovation versus discrimination

Gender disparities in tech can not solely be blamed on Silicon Valley: only 18% of computer science degrees awarded in 2013 in the US went to women. Nonetheless, for an industry which prides itself on innovation and problem-solving, it is remarkable that sexism continues to be so pervasive. 

Among the biggest issues are the unconscious biases harboured by male employees. "When I am with a male colleague who reports to me the default is for people to defer to him assuming I work for him,” said a woman interviewed by Elephant in the Valley, an initiative to document issues facing women in Silicon Valley. Eighty-eight percent of women surveyed said they had experienced co-workers addressing questions to male peers that should have been addressed to them.

Uber’s struggles show that companies which do not adapt pay the price. Two-hundred thousand users deleted their Uber accounts in a single weekend after the company refused to join a strike called by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance after the announcement of President Donald Trump’s controversial travel ban in February. Lyft, a rival ride-hailing service, continues to eat into the company’s market share in the US.

Nonetheless, Uber remains a scalding hot commodity. Rumours continue to swirl that it will go public in 2017, which would undoubtedly be one of the most eagerly anticipated IPOs of the year. Whether Mr. Kalanick’s stock can recover in turn is much less certain.

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