girl hailing uber with phone
Uber has taken many steps to combat sexual harassment, from employee training sessions to worldwide initiatives. — Getty Images/FangXiaNuo

Editor's Note: On April 11 (2019), Uber released its highly anticipated IPO filing, with plans to list on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol “UBER.” The ride-share leader's plans to go public make its focus on safety more relevant and, more public, than ever. CO— recently interviewed Tracey Breeden, Uber's head of global women's safety and gender-based violence programs. She tells us why safety is so important to her — and Uber — and how her background as a police officer helped prepare her for this role.

Before Tracey Breeden became head of global women's safety and gender-based violence programs with Uber, she spent nearly 15 years in law enforcement.

Breeden has long been in the business of keeping people safe. She has been a California Highway Patrol state police officer in the San Francisco Bay Area and an Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) task force officer and ATF explosives handler in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She was also the lead public safety information officer for Super Bowl XLIX and the 2015 Pro Bowl in Arizona.

One of the things Breeden became very passionate about during her tenure was preventing violence against women. “The majority of the calls that police officers [get] are domestic violence related or calls that involve, for the most part, women as the victims of violence,” she explained.

Over the years, she witnessed many horrific acts that she continues to think about.

“I carry with me a lot of people's stories that will always stay with me, will always impact me …[they] will always remind me of my purpose, and what is most important in this world,” Breeden told CO—.

“This really became my passion, and my work,” said Breeden, who became a subject matter expert in domestic violence and sexual assault. That eventually led to working with survivors and nonprofits and helping educate other police officers on how to properly respond to disclosures of sexual assault.

The leap to Uber

In 2016, the combination of Breeden’s deep level of expertise, her role as public information officer, and her passion to prevent more violence against women led her to helm Uber’s Safety Communications for its western division, covering 16 states. Her position at the ride-sharing company included global public relations and strategy for Uber’s corporate social and safety initiatives during a time that was a challenging one for the international ride-hailing company.

That’s because Breeden arrived at Uber about six months before one of its engineers, Susan Fowler, published her experience with sexual harassment in a February 2017 blog post that would be the first of many similar revelations.

Over the course of the next 18 months, 20 people were sacked in conjunction with the allegations, including CEO Travis Kalanick. An independent investigation by CNN of federal court records, county court databases, and police reports in 20 major U.S. cities revealed that over the past four years, at least 103 Uber drivers were accused of sexually assaulting or abusing their passengers.

On the heels of the news, viral social media hashtag #DeleteUber prompted an estimated 200,000 people to remove the company’s app from their phones. Research from 1010data, a data management company that analyzes consumer spending, revealed that Uber had a 10% dip in riders in the aftermath.

We knew that we really needed to focus internally, not just externally.

Tracey Breeden, Head of Women's Safety & Gender-Based Violence Programs, Uber

Instituting cultural change, programs to be ‘part of the solution’

To combat this, Uber has taken a number of measures, beginning with a mantra implemented by current CEO Dara Khosrowshahi: “We do the right thing, period,” along with a renewed dedication to transparency, integrity and accountability.

For her part, Breeden was working behind the scenes, involved in creating programs, providing education and offering insights on how best to combat violence against women, in addition to her work on the safety communications team. Through these actions, her current role as head of global women's safety and gender-based violence programs was eventually created for her.

Under Breeden’s leadership, Uber has met with over 100 women's groups and experts in the United States to learn more about what violence against women and other marginalized groups looks like, and the ways in which Uber can be part of the solution.

Breeden said the question went beyond how to prevent sexual assault on Uber’s platform, to how to prevent it within the global community at large. “Also, we knew that we really needed to focus internally, not just externally,” she pointed out, “so a piece of that was executive education — everybody, [including] our CEO and other executives, [has] been receiving training and awareness and education around sexual violence.”

Among the initiatives that Uber launched as a result was Driving Change. In the fall of 2017, the company committed to help prevent sexual assault and domestic violence across the globe by partnering with organizations like A Call to Men, NO MORE and Raliance.

Now, Uber no longer requires mandatory arbitration for individual claims of sexual assault or harassment, and survivors can settle their claims without a confidentiality provision. Uber also provides educational materials to its riders and drivers, and training to rider and driver support agents.

 tracey breeden headshot
Tracey Breeden, Head of Women's Safety & Gender-based Violence Programs, Uber — Uber

The global education push

Education is important to combat violence against women, said Breeden. “There's such a lack of understanding in our community and culture that there's not even a consistent definition throughout the [United States].” So her team worked with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center to develop 21 categories of sexual harassment, misconduct and assault. You can’t truly work to prevent incidents until you can define and categorize them, Breeden said.

She also saw the need to get the right people in place to handle such sensitive conversations, and worked to ensure that Uber’s customer service agents — a specialized group developed to receive calls about harassment — were trained to respond with empathy and understanding.

But Breeden contends that this isn’t one country’s problem. She cites World Health Organization data that one in three women and girls worldwide have experienced sexual assault or domestic violence in their lifetime — and most of it goes unreported. “People really don't understand that this affects every country, every region, every community, everywhere,” she said.

To that point, Breeden said she pushed Uber to do more than just provide funding and education; she pushed it into working in communities in a more collaborative way to address this issue holistically. The result was a program called Don’t Stand By, which launched in November 2018. It focuses on educating people to intervene before sexual assault occurs.

“We're also expanding those foundational initiatives globally,” said Breeden, citing Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. She and her team also recently visited India, where they met with a variety of local organizations. Rather than just create a program and roll it out from the United States, the approach has been to develop training and education solutions for executives, customer support, drivers and riders that work for the culture of a particular country.

“I really believe that we needed to go and meet with people face to face,” Breeden said. “It's more effective when you're talking about this issue, because this is not an easy issue to talk about.”

Despite these efforts, she confesses that the impact of the initiatives is hard to quantify in terms of Uber’s return on investment. What can be quantified is the fact that, according to its latest financials, Uber’s gross bookings are up a substantial 38% year-over-year, which would indicate that the 10% drop in riders in the aftermath of the sexual harassment scandal is in the rear view mirror.

Additionally, the private company, which is expected to file an IPO this spring, generated an estimated $11.3 billion in self-reported annual sales last year. Data from Second Measure also found that Uber has a substantial lead in the ride-sharing market, boasting 69.2%, as compared to Lyft, which stood at 28.4%.

“What experts have told us is that, as we continue to talk about this more, as we continue to create programs, initiatives and do work in this space, it will probably increase reporting [of harassment or violence] because people will feel more comfortable [reporting] as we also respond appropriately,” said Breeden.

Though she’s not willing to retell the victims’ stories she holds close, Breeden remains dedicated to continuing the work she did as a police officer with the added boost of having a global platform to operate from.

“I'm a public servant at heart,” she underscored. “It doesn't matter where [I am], whether I'm in policing or I'm at a corporation like Uber. I will always be a public servant, and that will always be priority.”

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

Published April 12, 2019