Last week, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick was forced to make another apology in what has been a long string of public apologies.
This time around, Kalanick had to answer for a leaked dashcam video that showed him chewing out an Uber driver who confronted him about the company’s compensation for drivers and gradually decreasing fares.
“Some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own shit,” Kalanick told the driver before exiting the car he’d procured via the app on on Super Bowl Sunday.
This isn’t, of course, the first time Uber has had less than favorable publicity. In just the last few months with Kalanick at the helm, Uber has been sued for allegedly stealing technology from a rival company and come under scrutiny following accusations of sexism and sexual assault within its corporate ranks. On January 28, the company found itself at the center of a social campaign to #DeleteUber after Kalanick joined an advisory council for Donald Trump. (He later was forced to resign from the council.)
With regard to the dashcam video, Kalanick owned up to his inappropriate behavior in a letter shared with Uber employees on February 28, stating it was “clear this video is a reflection of me.”
He added, “The criticism we’ve received is a stark reminder that I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up. This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it.”
Travis Kalanick is 40 years old. He has nearly 20 years of experience in the business and tech worlds. Since 2009, he has grown Uber into an international, multi-billion dollar company. But he’s also managed to give it a worse and worse rep, handling controversies and criticism with a surprising lack of insight.
Are these constant mishaps merely a sign that he needs to “grow up?” Or are they actually indicative of a larger reality in the business world, a reality in which grown men get to act like children with very little consequence and women do not?
“The criticism we’ve received is a stark reminder that I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up. This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it.”
Call it the Ryan Lochte effect. This tendency that men, especially white men have of playing the “just a kid” card despite the fact that they usually are in a position where they have more power and more agency over every one else.
Women, especially women in the public eye, rarely get to play the “just a kid” card. While men often only need to grow up (think of “it’s just locker talk”), women are scrutinized far more for their mistakes, punished more when they own up to these mistakes, and generally expected to have it all “together.” This double standard is sometimes subtle and sometimes glaringly obvious, but it is always there.
It’s an unconscious narrative, one that played most elegantly when Mark Zuckerberg brought on Sheryl Sandberg to help steer the ever-growing Facebook ship as COO in 2008. Zuckerberg was 24 at the time, Sandberg 39 ― the narrative was very much that Facebook had gained its first real “adult,” a matriarch who would get things organized and take the company to new heights.
Women, especially women in the public eye, rarely get to play the "just a kid" card.
Now, in the wake of Kalanick’s latest flub, business and tech writers are already suggesting that he choose a “Sheryl Sandberg-type” to help him take Uber in the right direction.
Strong female leaders in the business world are obviously a great and necessary thing, but the irony of arguing that Kalanick merely needs someone to come in and right his wrongs lies in the fact that female executives regularly get this kind of pass. The consequences for execs like Kalanick, Mark Zuckerburg, or Stewart Butterfield (whose billion dollar company Slack got hacked in 2015) are very different.
Consider Jill Abramson, the former executive director of The New York Times whose management style, similarly to Kalanick, was considered “pushy” and “aggressive” ― a virtue in a man, but in a woman, not so much. In the end, her “brusque” behavior got her fired in 2014 ― and it’s unlikely she was afforded the same opportunity to “change as a leader” that Mr. Kalanick was.
Consider also Ellen Pao, a woman CEO brought on to fix toxic culture on Reddit and then blamed and harassed for being unable to fix it.
Or consider Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, who made amends for a huge security breach that exposed the personal details of nearly 500 million users by releasing a heartfelt apology and relinquishing her bonus and equity in the company.
None of these women probably considered or even had the option of releasing a statement saying, “I’m sorry. I’ve got some growing up to do.”
Kalanick’s behavior in the Uber video is not that of a boy ― it’s that of a grown man with a vast sense of entitlement, and a freedom to be rude and aggressive to an employee of his company that few women would simply get a slap on the wrist for.
It’s good that Kalanick realizes that he’s in desperate need of “leadership help” but it’s telling that he views his antics merely as growing pains and not as a sign of a severe lack of self-awareness.
“Some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own shit.”
Hopefully, whatever Sheryl Sandberg-type Uber chooses will help Kalanick realize that for himself.