The recent leak of 124,000 confidential documents from Uber has shed light on some of the ethically questionable activities that have arguably helped fuel the global rise of the ride-sharing business. Among the allegations of breaches of the law and secret lobbying by government figures, the “Uber Files” show that the company paid academics at produce research on the society – often co-authored with Uber’s own employees. Of course, this is not illegal, but it raises questions about the role of academics and research in corporate lobbying.
files and messages, leaked to The Guardian, seem to show that Uber used this research to convey a positive narrative about the company and oppose regulation. A study published in 2016, co-authored with an Uber employee, suggested that Uber offered poor young people in France a way out of unemployment. It found that this group would become “very vulnerable” if action was taken against drivers who broke licensing rules.
the rigor, independence and the use of research like this has been questioned by transportation experts like Hubert Horan, and by some academics. Another one paper published in 2016, again co-authored by an Uber employee, touted the benefits of Uber’s flexibility and earnings to drivers in the United States. A Analysis 2018 of this study found evidence of “sampling bias, leading questions, selective reporting of results, and overestimation of driver earnings”.
One aspect that has been overlooked in the coverage of Uber cases is the role of gender equality research. This includes work Uber has done with the International Finance Corporation (IFC), part of the World Bank Group, the world’s largest and most influential development institution.
I have researched World Bank gender initiatives for over 20 years. In 2009 I published a early analysis how the IFC views labor market deregulation as beneficial to women’s equality. Since then, I have been increasingly concerned about how the IFC has partnered with companies in particular sectors to produce research on gender equality, including research arguing that deregulation of labor markets benefits Women’s.
Researchers disagree on whether labor market deregulation improves gender equality. An independent study on labor market flexibility and women’s employment, prepared for the World Bank’s gender unit by economist Jill Rubery, found that the evidence that deregulation has benefited women was “relatively thin “, “neither substantial nor always solid”. Rubery advocated an approach that examined the effects specific regulations (such as job protection, minimum wages, unionization and collective bargaining) on women workers. Other research has also been produced on this topic, some of which is sponsored by companies that will benefit from deregulation.
Uber is an example. In 2018, the IFC partnered with Uber on the research report Driving towards equality: women, ride-hailing and the sharing economy. IFC reports have also touted the mining and Insurance sectors as pioneers in women’s empowerment, especially in the Global South. Such research blurs the line between corporate lobbying and independent research on legal and policy frameworks for achieving equality.
This is important because the World Bank Group has a great influence on international development. In the 2021 edition of the Bank review of its gender strategy, development partners “have identified the Bank Group as producing and contributing to important research in support of gender equality, which they have used to inform their own positions”. Development experts from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency and Global Affairs Canada, interviewed as part of the 2021 review, mentioned “valuable IFC products and initiatives,” including the Towards legality. The results of research supported by Uber will have been registered with key development players in this sector.
IFC’s report with Uber, illustrated with glossy photographs of male and female drivers, describes ride-sharing as “a pioneer of the modern sharing economy” that could improve women’s limited mobility. Drivers could juggle childcare responsibilities while earning an income and becoming financially independent. Passengers could meet complex transportation needs with children.
The report used data from Uber drivers and passengers to examine how women and men use the company’s services. It also included original research (surveys and interviews) in six case study countries. This research was undertaken by the IFC and Accenture, an information technology consulting and services company.
In a statement to The Conversation, the IFC noted Uber’s willingness to disclose gender-disaggregated data: “Partnerships with platforms like Uber provide a unique opportunity to uncover data that otherwise would not be publicly available, data which are essential if the barriers between women and men are to be closed.
Acknowledgments in the report note financial contributions from Uber and funding from the IFC. Barney Harford, then chief operating officer of Uber, wrote the foreword, expressing his pride that the company had recently passed the one million female driver milestone: “Driving with Uber gives women the flexibility, empowering them to balance their work with other responsibilities and commitments they have.”
The report contained the disclaimer that it “does not examine public policies or regulatory frameworks that impede or advance sharing economy models.” IFC told The Conversation it was important to include this because of “ongoing litigation at the time related to the definition of employees, contractors and independent contractors.”
Still, he warned that barriers to entry for drivers into the sector were a challenge to overcome, if opportunities for women’s empowerment were to be realised. Barriers listed included the requirement for business licenses to drive on the platform. This requirement, common in many countries, including UK — presented a direct challenge to Uber’s expansion plans.
The report also recommended that ride-sharing companies “partner with financial institutions to develop insurance, pension and retirement products tailored to independent contractors.” Uber has long resisted legal pressure to classify drivers as employees. In most countries, employees are entitled to better benefits, such as maternity and sick leave, than independent contractors. The IFC report used Uber’s preferred framework — drivers as contractors, not employees — though it claims to take no position on these regulatory issues.
As further evidence that the IFC replicated corporate accounts of Uber’s benefits, the report cites several of the academic papers that Uber’s records have identified as related to corporate lobbying. This includes a – co-authored by two Uber employees – which argues that Uber creates billions in employee benefits for consumers. A counter argument by transport economist Horan examines Uber’s losses and the unsustainable use of investor money to subsidize rides.
IFC told The Conversation that the findings of this paper (on the benefits of improved mobility and job access for women) have been corroborated in a separate study it was conducted with a carpooling platform in Sri Lanka. The IFC said it is not accurate to say that the report with Uber was intended to support an organization’s corporate narrative.
The Gender Reality of Uber
In addition to providing arguments against regulation, these company-sponsored findings are also things Uber can use to counter its own negative reputation for gender equality.
Uber rose to fame for its alleged sexist culture in the workplace after a former employee alleged sexual harassment at the company in 2017 blog post. A class court case also claims that Uber failed to respond adequately to reports of passenger harassment and assault, including rape, kidnapping and harassment.
In order to distance itself from such allegations, Uber revised its corporate culture and started publishing safety reports in 2019. He has also partnered with the American sexual violence organization RAINN to produce courses on “the best ways to respect others while riding and driving with Uber”.
The partnership with the IFC and the World Bank lends legitimacy, albeit questionable, to Uber’s own narrative about its gender equality credentials and business model. This partnership should spur us to take corporate sponsorship of gender and development research much more seriously, and especially to question the World Bank’s work with corporations, especially when reports recommend deregulation. which will benefit these companies.