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By Samantha Marshall
“When a woman returns to Uber after five months fully-paid maternity leave, she can expect her desk to be left exactly the way she found it – the Post-It notes are still stuck to the side of her in-tray, her coffee mug is still in the top drawer, and the framed picture of her dog still stands next to her phone.
“Benefits like extensive maternity leave can be a double-edged sword,” explained Tracey Breeden, Senior Program Manager, Safety & Insurance for Uber. “It can set up our colleagues to think, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to be away for so long, someone could step into my position.’”
But making sure the desk is left undisturbed is just one of many little things Uber has done to bridge the gender gap and ensure that a woman’s career is never unfairly compromised. Great measures are taken to ensure she does not feel she is paying the “motherhood penalty.” And, if a man chooses to take paternity leave, he gets the same treatment.
“You know, in the tech world, we have this open environment where there are no offices and everybody sits amongst everybody,” Breeden continued, “so these small details matter, because they make you feel valued when you come back.”
The executive was part of a panel of industry leaders speaking on the subject of gender equality, diversity and inclusiveness in today’s workplace at Columbia Business School.
Titled “From #MeToo to #HowTo: Building an Inclusive Community at Work,” the panel discussion centered around practical solutions for making everyone feel safe, valued, and respected inside Corporate America in the era of #metoo. Moderated by Katherine W. Phillips, Faculty Director of the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Center for Leadership and Ethics, it drew on expertise from Breeden, whose role is to travel the globe providing diversity and inclusion training for Uber’s employees, Clare O’Connor, editorial director of Bumble, and Maya Salam, the gender reporter for the New York Times.
What was striking about this group was the relative newness of their positions and, in the cases of Uber and Bumble, the newness of the companies themselves.
O’Connor’s work focuses on developing editorial content for the millions of users on the female-led dating app through a new arm of the company, Bumble Media. Bumble itself was founded in 2014 and is a company led and staffed almost exclusively by millennial women. It was also founded by a woman who was directly affected by sexual harassment in the workplace. (Whitney Wolfe Herd was one of the co-founders of Tinder but left amid allegations of sexual harassment against one of her co-founders.)
Breeden, a former police officer, was brought into Uber after a string of controversies damaged its reputation, including accusations in February 2017 by a former female engineer of systemic sexual harassment and discrimination, prompting widespread debate about sexual misconduct in Silicon Valley. There’s been a top-down shakeup at Uber, with a new CEO and a newly appointed Diversity and Inclusion Officer, to whom Breeden reports directly in her role heading Uber’s safety and gender-based violence programs.
Salam, although she works for one of the oldest and most established media outlets in the country, enjoys the distinction of being its first gender reporter – a position that was created about a year ago, along with gender editor, as part of the Times’ “Gender Initiative” to create more parity in reporting, from how an article is sourced, to the subject matter itself. Beyond writing enterprise pieces that “shed light on gender issues,” the reporter acts as a resource for the newsroom, helping to ensure more gender-balanced reporting.
“I wish our colleagues would come to us more often,” Salam said. “One thing that happens a lot is that people are only interviewing men and, regardless of what the subject is, that’s a big problem. It even happens on stories about gender and equality. But at least now we’re thinking about it.”
While many of the tools shared during the discussion were time-tested, like promoting Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) for LGBTQs, for example, other approaches were more granular and focused on the individual, like pausing to ask someone their preferred gender pronoun, something Professor Phillips experienced for the first time at a student board meeting here at Columbia Business School.
“It made me so proud that we have come so far as to think to even ask,” recalled Phillips.
Another innovation, by Uber, has been the introduction of an “integrity hotline” – a portal which allows employees who are concerned about certain behavior to contact the inclusion or diversity group that can advocate for them. It’s just an additional channel for those who don’t necessarily feel comfortable going directly to HR, offering them strength in numbers.
“So how do you measure the changes or results?” asked one member of the audience. “Are these initiatives working?”
There are obvious benchmarks, including more female names of those, for example, on the New York Times masthead, replied Salam. But, beyond a diversity headcount, there also needs to be more depth in the analysis of a company’s culture, added Breeden. For example, Uber’s cultural survey, which is becoming the standard at many organizations, now goes beyond measuring representation to ask specific questions about employees’ experiences and feelings of inclusion.
Of course, all these shifts in behavior need to be supported by company leadership to have maximum impact.
“You have to have commitment; you have to have agreement,” explained Breeden. “You need the executives who are committed to this issue, addressing it internally and externally, and agreement that they're going to lead programs and prioritize this throughout the business.”
That includes the involvement of senior business leaders in ERGs, as sponsors willing to advocate for these groups in the C-suite.
Mentorship also helps in terms of advocacy and helping employees feel less isolated or misunderstood, noted O’Connor, regardless of gender.
“At the beginning of my career as a journalist, just knowing there was someone with more experience than me on my side was important,” she recalled. “Having that bridge through mentorship, with someone a bit older who is at least aware of what’s going on with the younger people can only better serve the organization.”
Uber has also taken the step of formalizing diversity and inclusion advocacy at the top with a Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council comprised of experts, employees and executive sponsors.
“This is how we’re leading the charge and making sure these issues are being prioritized,” explained Breeden.
And all these inclusion measures need to bring more men into the conversation. At the beginning of the panel discussion, Professor Phillips noted that male business leaders were invited to participate, but could not for a variety of reasons. It’s not unusual for otherwise enlightened male executives to exclude themselves from the conversation. Many will admit off the record that they fear setting off a tripwire that will cause more offense.
So how can the goal of scaling diversity and inclusiveness in Corporate America possibly be met if this part of the population shuts down and doesn't engage?
“We can’t do it alone just as women or underrepresented groups, we need men involved,” explained Phillips. “We have to acknowledge the concerns they have, the fear of being seen as sexist or racist is real. The concern with being seen as a moral individual has been shown to be highly endorsed by majority group members. We need strategies that meet men where they are and acknowledge the emotions and behaviors they are concerned about. Approach, not avoidance, is what’s needed. There are some brave and courageous men out there; we start with them while we change the tone.”