Uber recently came under fire for allegedly failing to address sexual-harassment and gender discrimination complaints made by a female then-employee against a male supervisor with a history of unprofessional behavior. In the days that followed, two other female former Uber employees wrote their own stories of harassment and mistreatment, which, taken together, add up to an image of a toxic work environment that makes it difficult for women to work with dignity, much less get ahead.
But there are at least a few female Uber employees who seem happy as can be at the company: the fake ones invented by male managers to get drivers to stay on the job.
This is one of the weirder tidbits unearthed in the New York Times’ recent article on the mind games Uber plays with its drivers and the app modifications it makes to try to encourage them to work longer hours at busier times. Replete with 8 bit–style interactives, the piece explains that gamifying Uber-driving with arbitrary goals and badges has kept more drivers on the road when they would have normally signed off.
And, it turns out, drivers are more likely to obey a female manager who nudges them than a male one. When Uber started urging its local managers to text, email, and send notifications to area drivers about logging in at a particularly busy time or driving to a particularly busy neighborhood, some managers decided to don virtual drag. The Times offers the case of John P. Parker, who managed Dallas Uber drivers in 2014 and 2015 under the name Laura. “‘Laura’ would tell drivers: ‘Hey, the concert’s about to let out. You should head over there,’” Parker said. He noted that the Dallas area had an “overwhelmingly male” roster of drivers, implying that men wanted to please or impress managers who were women but were more likely to ignore the encouraging pleas of managers who were men.
It wasn’t just one man’s nontraditional business-boosting scheme. It was, and maybe still is, institutional policy. “Uber acknowledged that it had experimented with female personas to increase engagement with drivers,” the Times reported. This weirds me out, and I’m not exactly sure why. Tech companies have chosen to default-gender their digital assistants (Siri, Cortana, Alexa) as female because women supposedly seem less threatening, more helpful, and more apt for administrative work. Uber is using that bias to help its drivers want to work. At face value, what Uber’s doing is not all that different from the customer-service chat windows that appear on some websites, offering a direct line to some attractive stock-image model named Ashley or Sandra. Few among us believe that Sandra, stock-image model, is actually on the other end answering questions about how to order a mattress pad or find a health-insurance form. But her perfect teeth and kind eyes are more inviting than a deer-in-the-headlights headshot of a random call-center employee or, say, the leering eyes of a Clippy avatar.
So why does my skin crawl at Uber’s relatively benign catfishing scheme? For one thing, Parker a.k.a. Laura and his peers are drivers’ managers. Even though Uber drivers are contractors, not employees, they are doing work for a company, and they deserve to know who’s actually sending them performance suggestions. This isn’t an AOL chatroom, where teens in Kansas City got to pretend to be middle-aged men from Honolulu, and vice versa. Nor is it generic communication coming from company management as a whole. It’s somebody’s job, and the messages are from one single person pretending to be somebody else. That’s weird! A company that respects its workers would incentivize them to work longer at busier times with some kind of remuneration, not by manipulating them with gender-bending roleplays. And a company that values its female employees would promote them to leadership roles and fire serial harassers, not exploit gender biases to squeeze more work hours out of its contractors.