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Q&A: Allison Tielking ’20 on reforming sexual misconduct reporting mechanisms on Lyft rideshare app

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In the wake of the historic Lyft IPO  — wherein the rideshare unicorn beat Uber to going public and was subsequently valued at about $24 billion — many are now turning their attention from the stock market tickings to rider safety concerns for these services. In January, computer science student Allison Tielking ’20 published an Op-Ed in The Daily detailing her experiences with inappropriate behavior from several different male Lyft drivers, as well as the apathetic response she received after reporting these occurrences.

In the months that followed, Tielking delivered a presentation to Lyft executives, created prototypes for changes to the app and aggregated stories from other women, posting the stories on an Instagram page titled “Take Back The Ride” in order to raise awareness. Despite the meeting and the implementation of one of her suggested changes to the app, which made the “share location” button explicit, Tielking is not satisfied and is demanding that the company speed up progress to ensure the safety of women passengers. Tielking sat down with The Daily to talk about sexual assault awareness, the impact of ethics courses for computer scientists and the barriers to speaking up.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): What originally drew your attention to this issue and what has happened since then?

Allison Tielking (AT): In the summer I had three experiences and I kept trying to forget about it … But then I got this tech tour … where you go and look at different companies. Our last one was Lyft and we had a Q&A at the end, where we were talking about more recruiting questions. I kept getting more and more uncomfortable because I was like, ‘I have this story — I have something I need to talk to them about.’

So at the very end I raised my hand and asked about it. And that was the first point of me not being really acknowledged at all and I started crying. I was telling my story and people were not very reactive and then they were kind of dismissing the things that I put out there. Then I raised my hand again and got an engineer to start working with me and we collaborated over email. Eventually that ended with me calling their customer support team, and them giving me the $15 coupon — and then me just feeling really horrible that I still felt like nothing was going to change.

And then I really wanted to write the article. I didn’t know how to express myself until I took CS 181: Computers, Ethics, and Public, where we were talking about whistleblowers and famous examples of that. The entire time I was really distracted because I was like ‘I have so much inside me, I need to write this down.’ So I spent an entire two days just writing.

TSD: A lot of people have called what you did brave. What’s your response to that?

AT: Every time I do post about it, I do feel fear that maybe this isn’t important enough with the things I wrote about. I was definitely worried about being seen as just a complainer. I also worry about getting blacklisted by tech companies for being too vocal, and how that affects my future since I am a computer science major. But I don’t want to be silenced and I think it’s important to speak up. Companies that value that will be the ones I work for, so in the end it’s not really a conflict. And I think it’s really great because it’s inspired a bunch of other people to speak up and that definitely … helped me realize it was something I needed to say. With the form that went out we got 40 stories in two weeks.

TSD: You subsequently went on to work with Lyft — what has changed from that apathetic, automatic response you first described to your work with leaders at Lyft?

AT: I think it hasn’t bubbled down. The new COO’s big focus is safety, but I think it moves really slowly. We keep seeing these stories. But there are changes starting from the top. When I was talking to engineers or people who were more entry level they were very apathetic. The most reception I found was at the top.

TSD: How do you think your engineering skills played into you taking the trajectory of action you ended up taking, [such as] your ability to prototype, suggest and implement changes in the app?

AT: Being in CS helps me see the problems in more of a user experience perspective. And also being surrounded by really, really smart people — it was easy for me to bring in Liz Gray [’20], who’s a product design major, and say ‘Hey, I have these ideas for things that we could change, do you want to come present and make prototypes?’ She was amazing and did it in one night, and they were incredible. The second time I spoke up I [relayed] potential solutions and that is what got someone to listen to me. So putting it in those terms is really useful. I’ve seen a lot of stories that have come out since mine, and it’s mostly talking about bad experiences but not really giving them a clear solution, and then it gets buried in the news.

TSD: How did your CS + Ethics class motivate you to go further with this project?

AT: [This class] talks about your values and your personal philosophy, and how you can apply that to being an engineer. Basically just making sure you don’t let your moral code decay or lose track of it in favor of profit. I think that’s really instilled in me, like my North Star. I want to make sure I work for companies like that and that I advocate or speak up when I see something wrong. That’s the biggest thing it taught me.

TSD: What were your thoughts given Lyft’s recent IPO and the subsequent slew of headlines about the company in the news?

AT: I was definitely surprised, especially because … Uber and Lyft promised they would release data about sexual assault and harassment reports from the app. And that was a promise that they said they would do before the IPO. Lyft has mentioned nothing and is still very much brushing it under the rug. It just makes me angry. I guess I don’t want to be the only person who knows changes are coming, I don’t want it to be a one-sided email between me and their team.

I want everybody to have hope that it’s coming out and that they are working on these things. It’s better to acknowledge that there are issues and make it very easy to get help. That’s a change that we presented and I need to keep pushing them for that too. After the presentation, everyone was really receptive … and very open in bringing other people to give them feedback. I’m upset that it’s not coming out fast enough. That’s why I made this Instagram account because as people add posts, it’ll stack up and people will see how weighty the issue is.

This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Contact Ellie Bowen at ebowen ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Ellie Bowen is a junior from Grand Rapids, Michigan, studying Symbolic Systems and English Lit. She works as managing editor of news for Vol. 255. When she’s not spending inordinate amounts of time at the Daily building, Ellie loves to read National Geographic, play the piano, and defiantly use oxford commas.