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OPINION

Uber’s safety report is an example for all to follow

Surprisingly, the ride-hailing company could be leading the way in addressing sexual misconduct.

Uber headquarters in San Francisco.
Uber headquarters in San Francisco.Eric Risberg

Of the many #MeToo-related reforms and discussions that have taken place over the last two years, one that holds incredible potential to make lasting change is the US Safety Report recently released by Uber. In that report, Uber disclosed that, in 2017 and 2018, it had received nearly 6,000 reports of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse from people who had been connected through its app.

Those of us who work in the field of sexual assault response and prevention know that 6,000 incidents over two years — ranging from intrusive personal questions and unwanted touching to rape — is low. Sexual assault remains the most under-reported violent crime for many reasons, ranging from a lack of confidence that the report will be taken seriously to fear of retaliation. If anything, the figures released by Uber are probably a significant undercount of what’s really happening.

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But the actions taken by Uber over a 21-month period to improve its response to driver and customer complaints about safety provide a road map for other major US companies, institutions, and organizations on how to respond to reports of sexual misconduct and abuse in the workplace, and support prevention efforts.

It is basically unheard of for a company or institution to rigorously collect data about sexual misconduct and assault and then voluntarily release them to the public. To be sure, Uber acted only after a complete change in leadership and years of advocacy by rape crisis centers, survivors, and community members. But other reports like these have been mandated by government authorities.

For example, we have a better understanding of the scope of sexual assault on college campuses thanks to the Clery Act. It requires colleges that receive federal funding to publish an annual report on campus security, including information on how reports of sexual assault are investigated. The law is named after Jeanne Clery, who was raped and murdered by another student while attending Lehigh University. After Clery’s death, her parents learned that the attack on their daughter had been the 38th violent crime on Lehigh’s campus in three years. They said that if their daughter had had that information while deciding which college to attend, she would not have enrolled at Lehigh. In response, Congress passed the Clery Act in 1990.

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Likewise, we know just how far-reaching sexual abuse by clergy in Pennsylvania has been because that state’s attorney general asked a grand jury to document it. Incredibly, Pennsylvania remains the only state that has attempted to quantify the number of residents affected by sexual abuse by clergy.

To compile data for its report, Uber turned to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, the Urban Institute, and Raliance for help creating a system to classify data that more accurately captured what was happening between drivers and passengers. Under Uber’s old system, customer service agents had enormous discretion about how to field a complaint. Often, exchanges between a driver and passenger that make many people feel unsafe, such as personal questions about relationship status and comments about physical appearance, were dismissed because no criminal activity had taken place. Under the new system, such activities are now recorded as sexual misconduct, which is important because such behavior, if left unaddressed, can escalate to more serious offenses.

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Does the new system work? Yes. At least for now. When the National Sexual Violence Resource Center and the Urban Institute tested how Uber was using the new system by examining over 500 complaints that had been recorded by customer service agents, they found that their analysis of the complaints matched Uber’s over 85 percent of the time.

Clearly, Uber is making changes that demonstrate that its board of directors and current leadership understand the scope of the problem. It is not the same company it was just a few short years ago when three of its top executives, including its founder and then CEO, Travis Kalanick, were sued for having obtained the medical records of a passenger who had been raped by an Uber driver in an attempt to discredit the survivor’s story.

Going forward, the real test for Uber will be ongoing training for customer service agents and drivers and continuation of the partnerships it has developed with sexual violence prevention groups, law enforcement, and community-based organizations. Perhaps the most encouraging thing Uber has done to date was to tap the expertise of high-impact nonprofits already working in the field of sexual violence response, education, and prevention. All too often, organizations (and individuals) interested in dealing with sexual assault succumb to the temptation to reinvent the wheel — Joe Biden and Lady Gaga’s plan to build trauma centers comes to mind.

But the knowledge and expertise to change society so that people of all genders are safe from sexual violence already exists. Imagine what could be accomplished if more major US companies, institutions, and organizations embraced the cultural change necessary so that safety and respect become deeply embedded and inviolable social norms.

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Gina Scaramella is the executive director of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.