Even unicorns need a moral compass: Uber and the ultimate toxicity of sexism

Who really needed the protection here?
Who really needed the protection here?
Image: AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.
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Evidence grows that sexism stands as the gateway drug to the worst of corporate behavior, with Uber and its recently departed chief Travis Kalanick just the most recent egregious example. If the CEO can’t understand that an employee outing to a karaoke bar that also features escort services is a bad idea, who knows else what he might attempt? Now we do.

When a former Uber engineer told the world about the routine sexual harassment she faced, Kalanick called the details “abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for.” Not true, then or now, it turns out. The ruthless approach to conquering international markets—and any plausible competitor—translated to a workplace where women were regularly demeaned.

That’s the problem with corporate cultures that celebrate winning at all costs. It becomes increasingly difficult to tell where the playing field ends and the “locker room” begins.

At Fox News, Roger Ailes unashamedly counted among his cable-TV commandments that blonde newsreaders are best, and most optimally viewed when their bare legs are visible through the glass desks he demanded for the set. The ensuing accusations of his sexually degraded underlings—a scandal that would engulf Ailes and Bill O’Reilly, his most prized on-air acolyte—astonished no one.

Sexism has been an ever-thus presence in the workplace, surviving despite the championing—with accompanying legal protections—of equal opportunity. There somehow remains plenty of room for  ”the paternalistic metaphor of the corporate family” that subjugates women, as Melissa Gregg put it for The Atlantic:

Unhappy workplaces feature all of the worst aspects of intimate relationships: They are needy (long hours), they punish by withholding love (promotions), they require obligatory felicities (email at any hour) and compulsory socializing (networking drinks).

As stiflingly workaday as all of that sounds for anyone in 2017, the grind for women who adapt their own identities to fit into male-dominated arenas is additionally nightmarish. Last week, Sarah Stockdale’s blistering Medium account, “The myth of the ‘cool tech girl’: And why she’s dangerous,” explained how insidious the idea of the “cool tech girl” is—”a toxic myth, she helps men feel safe in their sexism,” she notes. It was a coincidentally well-timed piece of writing: 

When the news broke about (I roll my eyes as I write this) an Uber board member making a sexist comment about women on boards at a town hall about sexism at Uber (facepalm) — I saw men write in comment threads “he probably thought it was OK, he’s probably friends with Arianna [Huffington] and thought he could be funny, it was just a joke.”

Read: he thought ya’ll were cool girls and you’d be cool about it.

Kalanick scrambled to boot that board member, David Bonderman, according to a New York Times account of his final days as CEO. But that was too little, too late, as became clear in a final-hours chat with Huffington, another board member.

Uber’s investors did what they had to with Kalanick. Still, shakeups attack only a symptom, not the disease. The damage of sexism at Uber may be under some control now. The factors that allowed it to thrive there—and in workplaces around the world— won’t be so easily undone.