Arianna Huffington is the wrong person to lead Uber's efforts against workplace sexism

Source: AP
Source: AP
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Arianna Huffington, the only woman on Uber's board of directors, is now helping lead the crusade against workplace harassment and dysfunction. After years of alleged instances of protecting employees accused of sexual abuse, as well as fostering a toxic work culture that lacked in diversity, Huffington is uniquely unqualified for the job.

Uber's big problems demand new leadership

During an Uber conference call on Tuesday, Huffington — joined by chief human resources officer Liane Hornsey and head of U.S. and Canada business Rachel Holt — discussed leadership and accountability at the company. She addressed the search for a chief operating officer, a position Uber has been courting ever since CEO Travis Kalanick admitted he needed "leadership help."

He does, sorely. Uber has been in upheaval on various fronts since at least February 2016: 

— Drivers have been protesting unfair labor practices.
— Hundreds of thousands of users deleted the app in response to a Uber's bungled reaction to the Muslim ban protest at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.
— Google hit the company with a lawsuit over self-driving technology.
— A leaked video showed Kalanick berating a driver who complained about reduced pay.
Kalanick was criticized for his involvement on Donald Trump's advisory team.
— There's been a mass exodus of executives.
— A report from the New York Times revealed that the company was using a program to deceive and evade authorities.
— A viral blog post from former employee Susan Fowler brought to light the sexual harassment and discrimination problems within the company.

The qualities Uber is looking for in a COO, Huffington said during the conference call Tuesday, include "significant operational experience," the ability to "thrive in a hypergrowth company" and "the strength and the [smarts] to work alongside the founder as a true partner." Bloomberg reported that investors have floated the names of three men to fill the role. 

Uber needs more than a figure who can complement Kalanick at the top and oversee operations. It requires someone who can accommodate the urgent needs of employees coming forward with allegations of harassment, as well as drivers protesting unfair labor practices. 

Huffington didn't once mention the harassment allegations and driver protests as issues the future COO should be capable of addressing. Instead, she focused on the (male) candidates' operational skills and ability to deal with customers. 

Huffington
Source: 
Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images

Women in tech are critical of Uber's approach to rooting out sexism

"'Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results,'" quoted engineer Julie Ann Horvath, a vocal advocate of diversity in tech who left GitHub in 2014 after outing its sexist internal work culture. "We cannot change the face of technology or the conditions in which we work by filling C-suites with white men."

In an email, she said Huffington's role at Uber is an "obvious" conflict of interest. "As a board member and investor in Uber, Huffington stands to benefit from the sweeping of any sexism claims under the rug," Horvath said, adding: 

In addition to this obvious conflict of interest, there is an incredibly unbalanced/unfair power dynamic at play here — I would go as far as to say this is an abuse of power. Huffington is in a much greater position of power and influence compared to any individual contributor or manager she may have sat down with. I can't imagine Arianna Huffington pulling me into a room and demanding I tell her whether or not I've been harassed by the management she serves [as a board member.]

This is an opportunity for Uber to hire an experienced woman into a powerful role in the company, but Horvath isn't optimistic about those odds. 

"Unfortunately, [venture capitalists] who often conduct 'talent searches' for their portfolio companies are generally all white men also," Horvath said.

Cate Huston, a former Google engineer, was equally skeptical of Huffington. "The person listening has to be open to what they're hearing, and they have to have the power to effect change," she said in a phone call. "It's not clear Arianna Huffington has either of those two things at Uber."

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick
Source: 
Evan Agostini/AP

Why are people skeptical of Arianna Huffington? Her track record.

"As I told employees a few weeks back, creating a great culture will be key to the future success, and going forward there can be no room at Uber for brilliant jerks and zero tolerance for anything but totally respectful behavior in an equitable workplace environment," Huffington said. 

Huffington doesn't have a great reputation for handling those "jerks" at her former company, the Huffington Post. There were accusations that Huffington concealed harassment allegations against managing editor Jimmy Soni in 2014. As AOL was allegedly investigating Soni's inappropriate behavior, Huffington's official note was that he was leaving to write a book. Later, she announced to the company that Soni was transferred to New Delhi to launch HuffPost India.

Many have also called into question Huffington's transparency. Inc notes:

[Huffington] reacted strongly after someone leaked an email in which an editor killed a critical story on Uber, citing the partnership between the two companies on Huffington's pro-sleep initiative. Huffington told her managers to find the source of the leak and characterized leakers as "malcontents who would be better off leaving their jobs."

Huffington
Source: 
Amy Sussman/AP

Huffington says sexual harassment is "not a systemic problem." It is.

Huffington doesn't seem to know what a systemic problem is.

By definition, a systemic problem is caused by the overall system, not an isolated case. Susan Fowler, the woman who brought to light Uber's internal sexism, is not the only person affected by structural issues at the company.

In an interview with CNN on Tuesday, Huffington claimed harassment is "not a systemic problem" at Uber — and then, bizarrely, blamed the system. "Structures ... were not in place ... to make sure that women, minorities, everyone, feels completely comfortable at Uber," she said. 

"Often harassment in tech is an abuse of power," Horvath said in response, suggesting Huffington isn't in the right position to adequately assess the situation. "How can someone who is in a position of power, at the top of the food chain, relate or objectively examine a systemic issue like harassment in tech?"

Huffington's claims to CNN are a direct contradiction of what a woman at Uber told Kalanick during a meeting with the company's female engineers in February. While the Uber employee more broadly pointed to sexism and not specifically sexual harassment, Huffington's negation of the existence of a rampant and demonstrated problem in the industry does not inspire a lot of faith in her ability to fully grasp this permeating issue.

Huffington is "willing to ignore and/or deny compelling evidence in order to maintain a position that is clearly not impartial — one that's politically expedient for her role and interests," Tracy Chou, a founding team member at Project Include, said in an email.

"The gender issues at Uber clearly meet the bar for a potential systemic issue worthy of deep investigation"

Leigh Honeywell, who leads the security incident response team at Slack, wrote a blog post in response to Huffington rejecting the notion of a systemic problem. Honeywell applied the rubric of the Ontario Ombudsman's Office — a branch of provincial legislature in Canada that investigates maladministration — to investigate the situation at Uber. 

"Based on the Ontario Ombudsman's rubric, the gender issues at Uber clearly meet the bar for a potential systemic issue worthy of deep investigation," Honeywell wrote. "In cases like that, a truly independent investigation is in order — not one conducted by a board member who has spoken dismissively of the issues."

"A truly independent investigation is in order — not one conducted by a board member who has spoken dismissively of the issues."

"Can we stop saying 'if' there's a systemic problem here?" a female engineer at Uber is heard saying in an audio recording of a meeting with Kalanick in February, TechCrunch reported. "We have the data, we have the anecdotes, we have it happening in our own backyard. When are we going to get together and say that there is a systemic problem here — and stop using hypotheticals?"

Huffington dismisses the problem — while the investigation is still ongoing

In February, Uber hired former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate sexual harassment allegations — yet Huffington is downplaying Uber's issues before the investigation is concluded. 

"She was looking for stuff to support the idea that everything was actually OK," Huston said.

During the Uber conference call, Huffington said that she had "personally spoken to hundreds of employees, either personally or on the phone, and having received hundreds of emails, it's ... clear that there is a real appetite for change internally." But she also noted that there are "thousands of talented, committed employees who believe in Uber's mission."

In response, Horvath said, "as someone who has lived through an 'internal investigation,' I can personally tell you that even if Huffington had spoken to every woman at Uber other than Susan Fowler, and none of them reported additional claims, it would not invalidate or erase what Fowler experienced at the hands of the company." 

To Huston, the issue is clear: "Uber has two problems. They have some people who engaged in sexual harassment and they have a lot of people who will passively stand by and let that happen because of the idea that the person doing this harassment is a 'high performer.'"

Huffington declined to comment on the record.

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Melanie Ehrenkranz

Melanie is a writer covering technology and the future. She can be reached at melanie@mic.com.

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