An Asian escort bar, sexual harassment charges and male dominance: Uber’s crappy couple of months

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A Korean "room salon" Photo credit: Ilyo Korea

Massively popular ride sharing company Uber is having a bad couple of months, amid allegations that the CEO once went to an escort bar in Seoul, allegations of sexual harassment, and a new report that shows the company is dominated by white and Asian men.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, along with other employees, allegedly went to an escort bar in Seoul in 2014, according to a recent report in The Information.

Escort bars, known in Korea as “room salons,” are pervasive nationwide in Korea. They are high class, expensive bars in which the hottest of the hot — which in Korea means lots of plastic surgery — Korean female employees pour drinks and make conversation with male clients. Such bars are widespread in Korea, and are often the place where business deals are sealed. While women working there – many of whom are Korean university students – are officially tasked with pouring drinks and making chit-chat, they offer full sexual services for the right price. Sometimes that price is over $1,000.

The Uber outing led to a complaint to the tech company’s human resources department, in which a female Uber employee present at the bar said she was uncomfortable with the situation, according to Gabi Holzwarth, the CEO’s former girlfriend, who was also present during the excursion, as reported by The Information.

Women working at the bar as escorts were wearing numbers so they could be identified by male clientele who might like to sit and chat with them, according to The Information. Holzwork told The Information that she left with Kalanick after around an hour, according to the article. There have been no allegations of illegal activities or sexual contact.

South Korea’s flesh trade is huge, and rakes in an estimated $14 billion a year. An estimated 1 in 5 Korean women under 30 have worked in the sex industry in some capacity.

One reason for the sheer size of the trade is that dump trucks full of corporate cash are poured into the industry. Employees at major corporations get entertainment budgets, which are supposed to be used for department dinners or to take clients out for drinks and a meal, but inevitably the funds are used to hit a variety of venues that offer sex. Those include karaoke rooms where women are hired to sing with clients and offer sexual services for tips; tea shops where the waitresses ask “do you want coffee, tea, or me?”; sexual massage parlors and traditional brothels.

Another reason for the size of the industry is Korea’s male-dominated society. It’s hard enough as it is to find a job in hyper-competitive Korea. But for most women, it’s nearly impossible to climb high in the ranks of Korea Inc. That means the jobs available to them tend not to be high-paying — especially for those without a college degree.  Many women in the sex trade found that sex is the only way to support their kids and aging parents.

Borderless just published this mini-documentary on the sex industry in South Korea. With the permission of several pimps and gangsters, Borderless was given permission to film inside a few brothels and was allowed to interview Korean sex workers there.

The ride sharing company is also in the spotlight over sexual harassment allegations made last month by former employee Susan Fowler.

Meanwhile, the company on Tuesday released its first diversity report. Critics said the company looks pretty much like most other Silicon Valley firms — mostly white, Asian and male. 

The report found that 36 percent of company employees are women. Fifteen percent are doing technical jobs, such as engineers, which is about in line with similar companies such as Facebook and Google. Women make up 22 percent of the company’s leadership, according to the report.

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