Uber head of strategy on improving workplace culture

Pippa Chambers
By Pippa Chambers | 13 August 2018
Meena Harris

“Women should feel empowered to have children at any point in their career,” leader of Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign group Meena Harris has declared.

In an interview with AdNews at the Vogue Codes event in Sydney, which aims to empower future female innovation and is backed by major brands like Westpac, Audi and HP, the US–based tech adviser/entrepreneur shared her views on building better workplace cultures, parental leave and how real change has to “start at the top”.

While speaking largely in her role for the women's action initiative, Harris also wears another hat as Uber’s head of strategy and leadership.

In response to the findings of the AdNews/Magic Beans Advertising Diversity Index study, Harris had some clear–cut observations. More than 400 people, which asked questions about gender, diversity and background (see our August edition in print).

One key statistic showed that all survey respondents aged under 30 did not have children. This is compared to the wider Australian population which, based on Australian Bureau of Statistics data, reveals that 11% of workers have children and are under 30.

The reasons for this could be far reaching. Given most people answering the survey live in typical media bubble areas such as Sydney’s Northern Beaches and Eastern Suburbs, and Melbourne hotspots like St Kilda, could they afford to take time off work for a baby while keeping up with high rental prices and mortgage costs?

And do people want to climb the ladder further before they feel they can take a year out of their career? It’s no secret that women taking time away for maternity aren’t always able to slide back into the roles they once had, given the demands of motherhood and industry, and restrictive government policies.

“That's a really tough one in that it's such a personal choice first of all,” Harris said.

“It's about having work environments where people feel empowered to have children whenever the hell they want to. Women should feel empowered to have children at any point in their career.

“I think that goes to the heart of the problem, that people feel like if they leave, then they're going to be behind.

"You need to have a work environment that says, ‘no, you should leave, you should leave for as long as you want. You're encouraged to do this and you will be very welcome when you come back. You will pick up right where you left off. You will be promoted."

Harris, who is also a commissioner of the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women, has been at Uber for a year. Prior to that, she worked in law as an attorney in data, privacy and cyber security. Harris also worked as senior policy manager at Slack and spent three years in user operations at Facebook.

“I think it's actually interesting coming from big law and going into tech, where without realising it, corporate law is actually quite progressive on maternity leave in the sense that everything is lock–step, including pay and promotion," Harris explained.

"But, there is an assumption across the board that women take six months off, period, and it's about four months in tech. It’s again about the culture and it comes from the top and setting that tone.”

Harris stressed this goes for men too, and used the “extremely progressive” example of Facebook, which gives men and women equal time for parental leave. Both mother and partner get four months' paid leave. Harris’ partner was working at the social media giant and took leave himself.

She said it’s still not enough as it’s about making sure that people are actually taking the whole leave and are being encouraged to.

“I'm proud of my partner who actually has taken the whole thing, but a lot of the criticisms in general can be that it's one thing to make it available, but is there an unspoken rule that you're punished for taking the whole thing? Or perhaps your manager is not exemplifying that?” she said.

“It's about putting action behind your words that you will be welcome here, you will be supported, and we are here to invest in you.

“When you have that, then you don't have people stressing out and saying ‘oh god, if I leave now then I'm going to miss this opportunity’. So, you have to really put that into practice.”

Many high profile stars back Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign 

Largely it’s thought that solely the CEO must drive the change as opposed to employees. Harris said while the ‘all in’ approach is great, you have to be careful as if it’s everybody's responsibility, this can become nobody's responsibility.

“The reason we have achieved diversity often is that you have a leader in place and somebody who is accountable, whose singular job it is to do that,” Harris explained.

Uber has witnessed crisis after crisis in recent years, only having been founded in 2009. Whether it be the 2017 blog post from a former engineer that sparked accusations of sexual misconduct, or backlash about its ties to Trump and general workplace and culture woes, the San Francisco–headquartered business has needed help in turning around its reputation.

“In an environment like Uber, where there has been so much trust lost, the innovative things that you can do to show that you're investing in your employees goes a long way to making people feel good; that they are a part of that business and making it a place of business that they actually want to work,” Harris said.

Late last year, Uber decided to offer executive education to its entire employee base. Taught by Harvard professors, with classes in leadership and strategy, within the first three month's pilot program, 6000 employees had signed up.

“It wasn't a silly one–hour class, it was eight classes. Each of them was, I believe, four hours of people volunteering in their own free time. They're not on the clock, getting paid to do this,” Harris revealed, adding that employees were adamant they wanted to complete all classes.

“It's about being creative and figuring out what the different approaches are, and where you are as a company to say, ‘we're going to invest in it, we're going to offer you world–class education to make you a better manager and a better leader."

Want more? See below and keep an eye on AdNews for more on diversity and inclusion, as well as a parental leave chart which shows which media firms offer the best parental leave policies.

Diversity: It's time to make waves, not ripples

Danny Bass on why 'change starts with CEO'

72andSunny design AdNews August 2018 front cover 

See our August edition in print

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