Counting it is the first step towards ending it

By Tony West and Kristen Houser

Numbers matter. They help us hold ourselves accountable. And as the physicist Lord Kelvin once said: “if you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it.”

That’s in part why Uber committed to releasing a first-of-its-kind transparency report in 2019 that will include data on sexual assaults and other severe incidents that are reported to us. This wasn’t an easy decision to make. But we believe that new strategies are needed to advance real solutions to help reduce the sexual violence that is so prevalent in our society.

Today Uber is taking its first step towards our transparency report by partnering with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) and the Urban Institute to create a new taxonomy to categorize incidents of sexual misconduct and sexual assault that are reported to us.

We’re sharing this full taxonomy today with the hope this will help inform safety strategies for any company that brings people together in the real world so we can all take more action to help end sexual violence.

Why taxonomy matters

Most businesses rely on data for decision-making. But data on sexual misconduct is challenging to acquire. That’s because sexual assault and sexual harassment are vastly underreported; it is believed that only 15.8 to 35 percent of all sexual assaults are reported to the police,[1] and non-criminalized acts of sexual harassment and misconduct, such as inappropriate comments, often go entirely unreported. Survivors commonly cite reasons such as fearing retaliation or that they won’t be believed, thinking police wouldn’t be able to help, or believing that what happened to them wasn’t important enough to report to authorities. In other words, many survivors do not trust that the rest of us will respond appropriately.

Beyond underreporting, differences in definitions and methodology make statistics about sexual violence from different sources even harder to compare. There is no common definition of criminal sexual assault across the 50 states or in federal crime statistics, and there is no shared understanding of misconduct that may not be criminal in nature.

These challenges create a landscape in which the limited information that is reported out provides only an incomplete and fragmented understanding of the true scope and scale of sexual violence. The value of a carefully-developed taxonomy for reported incidents of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, or sexual assault is that it can increase consistency and help us to identify trends, thereby informing the development of more effective response and prevention efforts.

Building a Taxonomy

Given that no common set of descriptive behaviors that businesses such as Uber can use to capture accurate data on sexual violence incidents exists, we turned to the NSVRC and the Urban Institute to create one.

With this complex and novel effort, our goal was to develop a set of categorizations that could be used to understand various levels of reported inappropriate conduct at scale — particularly important given that Uber does millions of trips in the U.S. every day. In addition, we also wanted to create a methodology that could be used by other companies providing services that put people together in the real world, and to provide them with a uniform lexicon that would enable them to apply consistent categories to a complex set of misbehaviors.

Many of the most common unwanted sexual experiences may not fall into the most severe category but they nevertheless profoundly impact the victim. For Uber, confronting reports of inappropriate or unwanted sexual behavior at any level is a business imperative, even if it does not rise to the level of potential criminal activity. For example, if a driver or rider were to make an inappropriate comment about the personal appearance, we would want to address the behavior early and proactively, before that behavior can escalate. We may educate the individual on our Community Guidelines and provide other resources to understand problems with the behavior, or take other remedial steps. Thus this taxonomy covers a range of inappropriate and sexual-related behaviors.

Behavior-based definitions

In order to build a taxonomy that helps us respond to and account for behaviors experienced in the real world, the NSVRC and the Urban Institute turned to actual reports (with personal information removed) made to Uber. The resulting taxonomy is designed to categorize the reports we receive from riders and drivers, using the behaviors that they describe.

In total, the taxonomy we are releasing today includes 21 categories of sexual misconduct and sexual assault behaviors. The behavior-based categorizations are meant to be both mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive so that such incidents reported to Uber have a clear single category. Reports that contain more than one unwanted sexual experience will be categorized based on the most severe behavior.

Defining specific categories of sexual misconduct and assault by effectively communicating the experience of the person who was harmed is in line with best practices. Classifying the experience of the victim reporting the incident is designed to drive more clear, sound data and overcome some of the previously mentioned challenges that plague sexual misconduct data. This consistency is a critical step to better analyze trends and patterns as it enables platforms like ours, and any other business that brings people together in the real world, to effectively count the same type of reported incidents.

Looking forward

Clear categories lead to counting consistently, which allows companies to respond more effectively to each report of sexual misconduct. Ultimately, this taxonomy will also help companies understand how their business is impacted by sexual misconduct and sexual assault, and make more informed decisions about how to prevent future abuse.

We know that this information can be even more powerful if we share a common language across industries which will allow us to work together to fully understand and confront sexual misconduct and assault. That is why we are sharing this taxonomy today publicly, even at this early stage of development and implementation.

Sexual violence is a deeply rooted problem that no industry is immune from. We believe corporations have a big opportunity to be part of the solution to preventing sexual misconduct and assault by working together to confront it, count it, and ultimately end it.

Tony West is Uber’s Chief Legal Officer.

Kristen Houser is the Chief Public Affairs Officer for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

Click here for the full taxonomy white paper produced by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center and the Urban Institute.

  1. U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, M. Planty and L. Langton, “Female Victims of Sexual Violence, 1994–2010,” 2013; Wolitzky-Taylor et al, “Is Reporting of Rape on the Rise? A Comparison of Women with Reported Versus Unreported Rape Experiences in the National Women’s Study Replication,” 2010