In April, Uber unexpectedly raised the live-wire issue of race.
Drivers were publicly demanding that the company change its smartphone app to let passengers tip them with credit cards, one skirmish in a running battle over pay and benefits. Uber refused to add the feature, making the provocative argument that its customers’ unconscious racial biases would lead them to tip white drivers better than black drivers.
But now, facing questions about race and diversity in its own corporate offices, Uber is tight-lipped.
The company has rebuffed demands by a civil rights group that it release statistics on the racial and gender makeup of its workforce, as Google, Apple, Facebook, and other prominent technology companies did following similar pressure. While many other big names — including Snapchat, and Uber’s ride-hailing competitor Lyft — also keep their numbers private, activists sensed an opening to push Uber on the issue following its recent comments about race and tipping.
“Transparency is the first step toward credibility,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, whose Rainbow/PUSH Coalition regularly challenges Silicon Valley companies over a lack of diversity.
Jackson said Uber should publish statistics about its more than 6,000 employees, “even if the numbers aren’t good.”
“You can go from the bottom to the top, but you can’t have any illusion about where you are,” he said.
An Uber spokeswoman said “we do not release statistics on the racial makeup of our employees.” She added that Uber is “committed to recruiting, hiring, and sustaining a diverse employee population.”
The company, which has reportedly more than doubled its workforce during the past 18 months, also said it is “looking at our own internal funnel to ensure we’re sourcing [employees] from the right places,” but declined to provide details.
In 2014, the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition helped pressure Google into disclosing its diversity numbers. A wave of reports from other large tech companies soon followed, mostly showing workforces disproportionately comprised of white and Asian men. Jackson’s group said it sent Uber a request for similar data last year but received no response; it plans to renew its campaign.
Uber’s refusal to release numbers is not out of character. It was founded on a premise of upending the status quo — the taxi industry — and its aggressive strategy of challenging regulators and public officials suggests it has little interest in appeasing critics.
“Uber has a distinct culture that, on the one hand, is responsible for its business success, but on the other hand has offended a lot of people,” said Freada Kapor Klein , a longtime proponent of corporate diversity and a partner at Kapor Capital, an early investor in Uber. “They’re not going to release numbers just because everybody else does it. I suspect they’ll come out with their own approach to diversity when they’re ready.”
Uber has no legal obligation to publicly disclose the racial and gender composition of the employees who work directly for the company, and drivers for Uber are considered independent contractors. Still, industry observers found Uber’s refusal striking, given its unprompted willingness to broach the subject of race during the recent tipping debate.
“They’re a fascinating bundle of contradictions,” Klein said, noting that Uber has also boasted it offers better service to black neighborhoods than taxi companies. “Uber has already shown an ability to use cutting-edge research on bias creatively in its business practices, and I would strongly encourage them to take that social science and use it internally.”
Klein said Uber employees applauded a presentation she gave at the company last year on how unconscious biases can hold back the best people and ideas at startups. Klein said Uber executives she met with “care passionately about diversity and inclusion,” but added, “I think it isn’t baked into their culture yet.”
Academic research on bias in hiring closely mirrors the studies on bias in tipping that Uber cited in April. A landmark 2003 experiment by the National Bureau of Economic Research, for example, found that phony résumés with white-sounding names received 50 percent more call-backs than identical résumés with black-sounding names.
With more recent research yielding similar results, some companies have turned to “blind hiring” software that hides applicants’ names and other identifying information during initial evaluations. Other tech firms have expanded their recruiting efforts to more universities with more diverse student bodies.
Google, where 70 percent of employees are men and 91 percent white or Asian, has tackled the so-called “pipeline problem,” launching efforts to encourage more women and members of underrepresented groups to pursue science and technology educations.
Diversity experts argue Uber could lend significant momentum to the push to diversify Silicon Valley, given its prominence and enormous reported valuation. Tech executives add that the disclosures in 2014 by Google and other companies showed diversity was a problem industrywide and prompted a much-needed debate about solving it.
“Transparency has created an opportunity for tech companies to share accountability, work together, and think about what’s driving the numbers from a broader perspective,” said Judith Williams, who is the global head of diversity at Dropbox and previously worked in a similar role at Google. “I would invite [all tech companies] to join this broader conversation. We all have the same challenges.”
Williams acknowledged that publishing such data can be painful. Dropbox, for example, disclosed that its overall count of female employees declined in 2015, even though the number of women in technical and leadership positions increased.
“Of course you think, ‘Oh my god, what’s going to happen when we put this out? We’re going to get killed,’ ” Williams said. “But the numbers are what the numbers are. We’re not going to give up on transparency.”
Both William and Klein stressed that simply releasing data is not enough to prompt change, saying companies need comprehensive diversity plans that address hiring, pay, corporate culture, and promotion.
Some experts said Uber may eventually decide that releasing the numbers is good for its image, which could become more important as the ride-hailing market matures and more competitors try to chip away at Uber’s dominance.
“They likely don’t want to open up this front now because there have been other controversies,” said public relations strategist Carol Cone , who specializes in campaigns that promote social causes. “But when Lyft and others in the market catch up, [Uber] will start being judged on other things besides just cost and convenience. That’s where values come into play. They need a greater purpose than just getting you from A to B.”Dan Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DanielAdams86.