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‘Tying diversity to salary too soon scares people’

  • My biggest learning has been never to underestimate the challenges of an individual
  • I have been working in D&I for long enough to believe that any organization and leader can change and transform

Bo Young Lee, chief diversity and inclusion officer at Uber, says India is a place of growth.
Bo Young Lee, chief diversity and inclusion officer at Uber, says India is a place of growth. (Photo: Bloomberg)

After coming under intense scrutiny following complaints about sexual harassment and racial and gender discrimination in 2017 and 2018, ride-sharing company Uber has been working to improve its image. In 2017, an Uber engineer published a blog post alleging widespread sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the company; a number of employees including senior management quit or were fired for sexual harassment; and finally co-founder Travis Kalanick stepped down as CEO as reports of a “toxic work culture" came to light. In March 2018, the US-headquartered company hired Bo Young Lee as its chief diversity and inclusion officer.

In an interview with Mint, Young Lee, 43, who was recently in Mumbai, talks about the initial challenges she faced, and whether the Uber India D&I (diversity and inclusion) conversation will include caste issues and the efficacy of compensation-related policy. Edited excerpts:

Tell us about your past 20 months at Uber?

My biggest learning has been never to underestimate the challenges of an individual. I wasn’t here during the worst part of 2017, so I don’t know what that journey was. Part of me thought I could brush off 2017 and show them the path forward. But a lot of our workforce is still living in 2017. So part of my work is to really lean into my empathy and ask, “What are you struggling with in this moment that is making you behave in that way," and not be dismissive of what people carry with them all the time.

Uber hasn’t had a great track record in D&I, and after you joined, there were a few CxO-level exits related to racial discrimination complaints. What were your initial challenges?

I am an eternal optimist. I have been working in D&I for long enough to believe that any organization and leader can change and transform. For Uber, given the journey we had—2017 was so challenging, then 2018—a lot of people were scared that nothing could change. So, during the early days, I had to calm the organization down and make people feel a little optimistic that we could move forward as a company. To reassure them that “Yes, things aren’t great now but they can get better, the leadership is committed to this 100%, and here’s the simple path forward."

Uber’s diversity-related compensation policy (incentives are linked to meeting diversity targets) calls for more representation of women and under-represented groups in senior roles. Where does India stand in comparison to global counterparts?

Globally, we are about 40% women right now, and in our managerial roles and above population, it’s just about 30%. (Uber has 27,000 employees globally, of which 2,600 are in India but the firm didn’t reveal the number of women employees.) We will be seeing a lot of growth here, and want to ensure we are looking at the number of women hires, not just at entry-level but mid-level as well. India is going to be a critical part of contributing to that because it’s such a growth market and place of innovation for us. For the Indian context, our numbers are pretty good from the women’s representation perspective. We would, of course, love to get that much higher.

How do you define diversity in the Indian context?

Earlier this year, we introduced a global self ID campaign. We asked all our global employees to voluntarily self-identify in eight different dimensions. In India, we didn’t specifically ask about caste because we knew there was so much cultural sensitivity but one of the questions we did ask was about socio-economic background growing up. The proxy question we asked was what was the highest level of education their parents achieved. If we feel that the workforce here is ready to have a strong dialogue about caste, we may update this self ID and actually start asking that question like what’s the historical caste of your family.

Do you believe incentive-based policies help fast track D&I initiatives?

It depends. Dara (Khosrowshahi, chief executive of Uber) and I talked about this quite a bit, like do we start off by linking our leadership compensation and incentive to diversity goals. At the beginning of the journey, we didn’t feel it was the right time. There is a time and place for when you start to introduce these kinds of policies. If you are still a company that has barely started on D&I and you really don’t have the language, metrics and maturity of knowing how to advance D&I, you cannot roll out any kind of incentive-based plan. It will scare people and drive them away from D&I. That’s why we waited for almost two years into the journey to begin that process.

In the D&I space, there are many things to do and one doesn’t know how to narrow the focus. Do you think, this is an issue other leaders are also grappling with?

One of the worst phrases from D&I is this idea of “best practises". I always tell people, there are no best practises, there are just “right practises"; right ones for your company. Every company has a unique culture and you have to find things that drive behaviour and culture and choose strategies that work accordingly.

D&I is not all that complex. There are only so many things that you can do to advance it. But the complexity comes in finding the right things to align with the values of the company.

D&I initiatives take time to show results. How does one tackle the expectation of immediate results and turnarounds?

When you get into the loop of short term validation, you create systems that don’t have the longer effect that you want to have. And that’s the thing about D&I, people’s tolerance for it is very low. Fatigue sets in early and cynicism is very easy to trigger because D&I is not something people are comfortable with. So, you have to be aware of that fatigue cycle and give them the early wins on the processes.

Is there any particular geography where you have found changes take more time to implement from D&I perspective?

There is no one region where it’s hard. I would not say it’s any more difficult to have a conversation in Asia than it is in the US. For all of the conversation that happens in the US, it’s a tough conversation there but it’s just a different quality of toughness.

I, actually, like coming to Asia because the topic is new and there is such a hunger (for it). The challenge is I have to simplify the conversation because it is so new. You speak 90 per cent of the time about gender and 10 per cent on something else. Hopefully, it will even out over time.

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