Plagued by an endless stream of accusations about sexism that stretches across the globe, the ride-sharing company Uber has entered the major leagues of corporate image repair by teaming up with the United Nations. The two organizations say they’re joining to advance gender equality and hire a million female drivers over the next five years. This is an exceptionally lofty goal considering Uber doesn’t currently have a million drivers of both sexes combined.
The plan, presumably, is the brainchild of of David Plouffe, the architect of Obama’s presidential campaign and his closest advisor for two years. Uber hired Plouffe last year as a senior vice president for policy and strategy, after the company received a particularly bad run of press in response to its clashes with local taxi companies. “David is as smart and strategic as they come in politics. Wherever he goes and whatever he does his presence is immediately felt,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel declared.
Emanuel was right. Upon being put in charge of Uber’s branding, Plouffe began forging partnerships that generated the company good press. Uber launched UberMilitary, a campaign to give jobs to 50,000 members of the military (Obama’s former defense secretary, Robert Gates, sits on the board). Uber developed a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University which includes the creation of an Advanced Technologies Center, and after initial resistance, former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick enacted last-minute regulatorychanges that greatly benefit the company. (Plouffe was a consultant to Deval Patrick’s campaign. Upon his hiring, Patrick praised his abilities: “David Plouffe and Uber are a natural match. From my insurgent campaign in 2006 and since, David has shown an interest in and an appetite for challenging established ways —and winning.”)
In the statement Uber released to celebrate Plouffe’s hiring, it likened itself to a political candidate: “Our roots are technology, not politics, writing code and rolling out transportation systems. The result is that not enough people here in America and around the world know our story, our mission, and the positive impact we’re having. Uber has been in a campaign but hasn’t been running one. That is changing now.”
Why does Uber feel the need to include such an ambitious partnership with the UN as part of its campaign? Its track-record on women’s issues is worth rehashing.
1. A 26-year-old woman in Delhi says she was raped by an Uber driver; she’s suing the company in a US court while the driver, Shiv Kumar Yadav, is on trial for kidnapping and rape charges. Uber has been banned in the area and the company has begun requiring more strident background checks as a result.
2. Uber’s senior vice president of business, Emil Michael, suggested the company should dig up personal information on a female journalist in an effort to discredit her. At a dinner with reporters last year, Michael became focused on Sarah Lacy, editor of PandoDaily, who had recently written a piece criticizing Uber’s sexist culture. Michael floated a remedy to the table: a million-dollar opposition research plan to smear Lacy. After Buzzfeed made Uber aware of the fact it was reporting on the incident, Michael released a statement apologizing for his blunder. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick called Michael’s comments “terrible” and apologized to Lacy, though declined to fire Michael.
3. An Uber driver sexually assaulted a 30-year-old Boston woman this year. The driver, Abderrahim Dakiri, had dropped off three of her friends prior to the assault, and then, according to Boston police, “indecently touched her several times.” Uber said the driver passed its federal, state and local background checks a month before the incident.
4. CEO Travis Kalanick openly brags about how the company’s success has increased his access to women. From a GQ profile by Mickey Rapkin published last year, “Not to make assumptions, but Kalanick probably wasn’t the first kid in his class to lose his virginity. But the way he talks now—which is large—he’s surely making up for lost time. When I tease him about his skyrocketing desirability, he deflects with a wisecrack about women on demand: ‘Yeah, we call that Boob-er.'”
5. Uber ran a French promotion suggesting attractive women would pick you up if you entered a promo code. The strikingly sexist ad, which featured photos of women in various states of undress, was taken down after Buzzfeed reported on it, but Uber has never issued an apology for its content.
6. In an email to his press team, CEO Travis Kalanick stressed that Uber has to “make sure these writers don’t come away thinking we are responsible even when these things do go bad.” The email surfaced shortly after Bridget Todd, a former lecturer at Howard University, tweeted to Uber that she had been choked by her driver. Kalanick’s email (which presumably included press members accidentally) not only laid out a blueprint to deflect responsibility for such incidents, but also speculated that they were fictional, blaming media members for identifying Uber as, “somehow liable for these incidents that aren’t even real in the first place.” Kalanick has never apologized for suggesting that women were inventing assaults.
7. Last summer, an Uber driver was charged with sexually assaulting a passed-out woman in DC. According to an affidavit, the passenger woke up to find driver Reshad Ahmad Chakari fondling her breasts and pulling her underwear down. After she asked to be let out, he refused and suggested that he should accompany her to the hotel she was staying at. She managed to text her friends, who called her phone, panicking the driver, who let her out of the car.
While by no means comprehensive, this list of Uber’s infractions suggests why Plouffe would be so concerned with improving Uber’s PR in this area. The partnership with the UN makes perfect sense for Uber (which timed the announcement to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration, a UN resolution to promote equality for men and women), but why is the United Nations so willing to assist in rehabilitating Uber’s image?
“In the coming weeks, we are looking forward to sitting down with UN women to discuss the most effective ways to work with their teams on the ground,”said Uber’s general counsel Salle Yoo. It remains to be seen whether this partnership transcends raising the numbers of female drivers and includes programs that will legitimately shift the company’s culture.