What if Uber Were a Feminist Business?

CV Harquail

WITH THE RESIGNATION OF UBER’S CEO, TRAVIS KALANICK, IT WOULD APPEAR THAT CRITICS OF THE COMPANY’S SEXIST CULTURE HAVE WON.

The remaining executives, board members, and investors plan to set diversity hiring and promotion goals, to eliminate explicitly sexist criteria and policies, and take a “zero tolerance” approach towards issues of harassment. The culture of Uber will surely improve.

It’s too bad, then, that swapping out the “BroEO” and adding some diversity programs will only do one thing: make the company less hostile to women, and men of color. That’s the same as making the company equally hostile to woman as it is to men — gender and racial equality, but still in a business that’s designed to extract as much as it can from every single stakeholder.

Having a less sexist, less misogynist, less brotastic, less hostile workplace won’t make Uber a better company. It won’t change the ways that Uber takes advantage of riders and drivers. It won’t change how Uber understands its role in the economy and community. It won’t make Uber a better local citizen. Alas, these changes will not make Uber an exemplary company, one that contributes as well as takes.

And with a valuation at $70 Billion, Uber should be an exemplary company.

The only way to really change Uber for the better is to aim at the root causes of Uber’s toxic culture. That means changing Uber’s emphasis from domination to collaboration, from extraction to contribution, and from selfishness to collective gain. The only way to fix the rot at Uber’s core is for Uber to become not merely a less sexist company, but rather a feminist company.

FEMINIST BUSINESS?

Feminist companies do more than treat women, men, and all employees equally. Feminist companies are businesses that — while making a profit — build the agency of their employees, treat them as whole human beings, emphasize their creativity and contributions, and recognize the how the success of the company depends on the success of its employees, its customers, and the communities in which it operates.

UBER, A FEMINIST BUSINESS? IT’S HARD TO IMAGINE.

What if one of the most disruptive, technically sophisticated and highly valued companies was to focus on making a positive difference for all its stakeholders? What if Uber were to put into practice one or more of the core values of feminist business, such as Equality, Agency, Whole Humanness, Generativity, and InterIndependence. [For more on these values, see FeministsAtWork.com..]

Just try it as a thought experiment: What if Uber were a feminist business?

EQUALITY ISN’T ENOUGH.

We’ve already begun to imagine how Uber might change if all employees were treated equally. What if Uber took equality further? What if Uber treated its drivers and riders and community members as stakeholders whose interests were as important as those of investors and owners? If Uber were a feminist company, its commitment to equality would have it engage all stakeholders in mutually success, with each group of stakeholders being treated with respect and care. A feminist Uber would do more than make sure that employees were treated equality; it would transform its relationships with all stakeholders, starting with drivers.

1. ACKNOWLEDGE AND SUPPORT THE AGENCY OF DRIVERS.

If Uber were a feminist business, the company would design its systems to support drivers’ human agency. Agency is a person’s ability to take independent action and make their own decisions freely, instead of being subject to some other person or company’s directions, orders, or force. (In this way, agency is the opposite of oppression, where someone else has power over what you do, how you do it, and what your options might be.)

If Uber were to support the agency of its drivers, it would treat these drivers as adults capable of setting their own goals, making their own schedules, making their own decisions. And it would do everything in its power to help these drivers make a real living working for Uber.

While Uber claims to treat its drivers as independent contractors free to make their own choices, the truth is more complicated. Because Uber makes its money by squeezing every last cent out of the drivers, all of Uber’s driver support technology is designed to press drivers to work up to and past their limits.

Uber’s tools, including “the rating system, performance targets and policies, algorithmic surge pricing, and insistent messaging and behavioral nudges are part of the “choice architecture” of Uber’s system”. Uber’s tools push drivers to drive to locations where, and during times when, the company can maximize its own revenue, even though driving at these locations and times doesn’t necessarily earn the drivers a living hourly wage.

Instead, if Uber supported drivers’ agency, Uber would give drivers tools to help them set and meet their own individual driving and earning goals. These tools would let drivers plan their own work shifts to maximize their hourly wages. Uber would reward drivers financially when they stayed inside speed limits, or met safe driving targets, or were especially kind and helpful to riders.

2. RECOGNIZE AND SUPPORT THE WHOLE HUMANNESS OF RIDERS.

Beyond being seen as agents in charge of their work days, a feminist Uber would also support the whole humanness of drivers and riders. Whole Humanness refers to the physicality, emotionality, and diversity of human beings. When we acknowledge the whole humanness of customers, we create products that serve their immediate functional needs in ways that are emotionally supportive, cognitively streamlined, and physically comfortable. And, we serve the needs of every kind of human being — not discriminating based on gender, race, spirituality, age, physical ability, or other human feature.

Think about the limited and shallow way that Uber imagines their customer-riders.

According to the Uber app, the most important thing to a customer is how far away their car is, and how long they have to wait. As if that’s all that matters. Constant updates (5 minutes away! 2 minutes away!) focus our attention on swiftness and make us anxious about all these extra seconds whizzing by while we wait. Meanwhile, Uber’s app directs our attention away from other human needs — such as the driver’s safety, other drivers’ safety, and our own safety, to offer one example.

Uber’s service also directs riders’ attention away from human differences that might be meaningful beyond their own selves, such as the needs of other riders who may not have conventionally mobile bodies. Currently, if you need a ride and you use a wheelchair or a walker, you’re out of luck with Uber. Uber has aggressively maneuvered around municipal regulations that made sure taxi fleets had enough modified vehicles to serve humans with any kind of body. Uber cares only about serving the physically abled, and only about serving our artificially amped-up need for speed.

3. HONOR THE INTERINDEPENDENCE OF THE STAKEHOLDERS AND THE COMPANY.

While Uber is teaching us to stress out about a 3 minute wait that turns into a 5 minute wait, it’s also teaching us to be self-centered, and to ignore our interindependence with other people and the larger community. The feminist principle of interindependence recognizes that none of us succeeds alone, and that individual success, corporate success, and community success are interdependent.

Uber teaches us to ignore how our own convenience depends on Uber’s — and our — willingness to exploit drivers, to skirt regulations that support public safety and health, and to pollute the environment we share. Uber teaches us to care more about friction-less payment than about giving the driver a tip. Uber helps us beat the price we’d pay for a real taxi, and ignore how the taxi fares we’re avoiding pay for worker protections, and sometimes even a living wage, for those taxi drivers.

4. USE CREATIVE POWER TO INNOVATE FOR GOOD

Feminist businesses aim not to disrupt, but to generate. They use their skills to create new ideas and new value. They use their creative power for innovate for the greater good.

People describe Uber as an innovative company, although Uber rarely innovates in ways that add net positive value. Uber’s innovation has been to aggregate self-focused riders, to extract maximum value from drivers, and to create a drag on the overall ecosystem. It hasn’t really contributed anything beyond rider convenience, which is simply not enough.

Don’t believe me? Just think of the way Uber uses its data.

No company knows better than Uber where Americans want to go, and when, or can predict people’s ride-needing patterns. What does Uber do with this knowledge? It uses its data to urge drivers to drive more, so that there are more cars on the road in the right places. That’s an efficient short-term solution for each individual rider, and it adds to Uber’s revenue, but it doesn’t help the overall community.

What if Uber some of its data & knowledge for the public good? What if Uber shared its data so that communities could reroute bus lines, revise train schedules, and balance bike sharing racks, so that public transportation were more efficient? What if Uber concentrated on the ‘last mile” or the idiosyncratic itineraries that can’t be met by buses and trains?

Or, what if Uber expanded the focus of its formidable hardware and software investments, to pursue not only self-driving cars but also cleaner cars, safer cars, more resilient cars, and less polluting cars? Right now, Uber’s focus is eliminating the costs of human drivers. But why not eliminate the costs of cars themselves?

What if Uber treated drivers and riders as whole human beings, able to make smart decisions and not merely short term and selfish ones? What if Uber acknowledged all parts of our humanity, not just our stress about time? What if Uber used its skills and resource to build up each of its stakeholders and its community, too?

Imagine an exemplary Uber. Imagine an Uber that demonstrated feminist business principles of equality, agency, whole humanness, generativity and interindependence.

Critics of Uber and Uber’s leaders themselves should aim bigger.

It takes more than a sky high valuation and a harassment-free culture to make a business exemplary. It takes a culture where all people are treated as deserving, that recognizes and supports all kinds of our humanity, that builds up both itself and its community, and that uses its creative power for shared good. To become a truly exemplary company, Uber — and all companies — should move feminist business principles from imagination into action.

For more ideas about how feminism is transforming business and the workplace, visit FeministsAtWork.com.