The Drive for Equality: Uber’s Misguided CEO Search

Uber, the popular ride-sharing app, has been having a rough year so far. In January, over 200,000 Uber customers deleted the app after drivers tried to do business at JFK airport during a New York Taxi Workers Alliance strike. On Saturday, January 28th, the drivers’ labor union called for all taxi drivers to avoid JFK airport in response to President Trump’s executive order barring travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the US. February saw allegations of sexual harassment and gender discrimination within Uber. In June, the company announced they had fired over 20 employees as a result of their investigations. Just two weeks later, at the demands of several shareholders, then-CEO Travis Kalanick resigned.

This month, TfL (Transport for London) and Sadiq Khan announced that Uber’s license to operate in London would not be renewed effective September 30th, citing poor “approach to reporting serious criminal offenses”. In addition, Uber’s use of Greyball, a tool that Uber reportedly used to operate in cities where the driving service was either banned or being resisted by law enforcement, raised questions for TfL.

Immediately after the decision not to renew Uber’s license, downloads of rival apps spiked, with companies claiming anywhere from 180% to 250% increase in downloads in the 48 hours following the ban. Of course, Uber is already seeking an appeal, but with Londoners making more than a million trips a week using the service, losing this market would be a big hit. In response, the new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, issued an apology on behalf of Uber for the mistakes the company has made (despite the fact that Khosrowshahi wasn’t even in charge at the time the alleged incidents took place.)

Speaking of new CEOs, you’ve probably heard the infamous headline: “Uber’s search for a female CEO has been narrowed down to 3 men”. Dara Khosrowshahi, for those unaware, is a man. Some may see Uber’s attempts to hire a female leader as an attempt to atone for their culture of workplace sexism. However, the article attached to this headline introduces the phenomenon of the “glass cliff”. A term coined and researched in 2005 by two Exeter University professors, it posits that women are more likely to be hired to leadership positions in times of crisis than their male counterparts. The two professors, Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam, found both in the fields of finance and politics that their hypothesis was confirmed.

Could it be that by seeking a woman to lead their company in a time of despair, Uber is doing more harm than good in its treatment of women? It may seem counterintuitive that hiring a woman to a position of power is unfair to women, but if Uber had valued its female leadership originally, maybe they wouldn’t be stuck playing catch-up at a time when it won’t help. Having a woman lead the company while Uber’s reputation is in the dumps could mean she is supposed to be a scapegoat for mistakes made by past leadership. For whatever reason, be it the glass cliff or Uber’s already poor reputation and demonstration of character, female executives made it clear they didn’t want the job anyway.

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