Counting it (well) is the first step to ending it: Uber misses the mark on harassment data

As the company prepares to go public, Uber is trying to clean up it’s image

Photo by Alexander Popov on Unsplash

In an IPO prospectus published by the Securities and Exchange Commission yesterday morning, Uber declared sexual harassment and a toxic workplace culture to be a significant threats for the business as it prepares to become publicly traded.

The announcement comes after a difficult few years for Uber’s PR department. Since 2017, the company has been battling criticism over drivers pay, the #DeleteUber campaign, passenger safety and allegations of a widespread harassment, misconduct discrimination at the company.

As Uber states in the IPO :

These events and the public response to such events, as well as other negative publicity we have faced in recent years, have adversely affected our brand and reputation, which makes it difficult for us to attract and retain platform users, reduces confidence in and use of our products and offerings, invites legislative and regulatory scrutiny, and results in litigation and governmental investigations.

One solution the transportation giant has proposed is a commitment to publishing more information on harassment and assault provided to them on the platform. The company has promised to release a “first-of-its-kind transparency report” in 2019, which will “provide the public with data related to reports of sexual assault and other safety incidents claimed to have occurred on our platform in the United states”.

The announcement in the S-1 Filing follows Uber proudly announcing they had developed a taxonomy helping industries classify reports of sexual harassment, misconduct and assault in Counting it is the First Step Towards Ending It, a blog published last November.

Uber is right — without data, it’s hard to know how to fix a problem. But data alone isn’t a silver bullet. In order to trust that data we need to think critically about how it is created. Who is (and isn’t) involved in designing the schema? What are their interests? How will that inevitably that shape the data we use to create policy?

In a bizarre turn of phrase, a spokesperson revealed the boundaries of Uber’s model. She stated the schema was created for “businesses that connect people in the real world”. By that, she meant it’s intended to record interactions between uber drivers and riders. It’s not intended for complaints made by employees “in the workplace” at Uber HQ — despite the company facing criticism from whistleblowers in the past.

The statement from Uber reveals a fascinating insight into the company’s psyche — that Uber drivers aren’t people ‘at work’, and people who work in their offices aren’t in the ‘real world’. It’s also interesting that the company is choosing publishing data on complaints received in the United States, where drivers are viewed as contractors by the Federal Government.

As Mona Chalabi shows, there isn’t much data on sexual harassment and assault available at the moment, and the limited information we do have indicates most instances go unreported. A 2013 survey conducted by YouGov found only 27% of people in the UK who experienced harassment reported — 70% said they didn’t, and 4% of respondents preferred not to say (figures don’t add up due to rounding). The Harvard Business Review notes, reluctance to report stems from the bystander effect, fear of retaliation, and cultures that enable abuse.

A model is better than no model. But without evidence self-reflexivity on internal harassment issues at Uber, can we trust a company that has paid out nearly 2 billion USD in harassment claims to create good data on sexual assault for users of it’s platform?

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