In ‘Whistleblower,’ Susan Fowler reveals the toll of speaking out against Uber
Hours after Susan Fowler received her company laptop at Uber, a chat message popped up from her boss. He wasn’t offering her a friendly welcome to the new engineering team she’d just spent the last couple of weeks training to join, or suggesting the best place to grab a sandwich in the neighborhood. Instead, on that day in December 2015, he began sharing intimate details of his sex life with his girlfriend, with whom he said he was in an open relationship.
Fowler, then 25, was horrified by her boss’ behavior and quickly reported it to the company’s human resources department. But her supervisor kept his job and never faced consequences for his actions; Fowler was told it was his first offense and he was a high performer.
It was the first in a series of HR mishaps that ultimately led Fowler to write a February 2017 blog post detailing what she described as an unethical, misogynistic and emotionally abusive workplace at Uber. Within hours, her manifesto went viral, eventually prompting an internal investigation at the ride-share company that helped lead to the ouster of co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick.
Three years after she pressed publish on her blog, Fowler has written a book expanding on her time at the technology start-up: “Whistleblower: My Journey to Silicon Valley and Fight for Justice at Uber.” In it, she describes a poverty-stricken Arizona upbringing during which she was homeschooled by her parents but then took control of her own education. Against the odds, she made it to the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied particle physics.
Since speaking out against Uber — something she did months before the #MeToo movement took the culture by storm — Fowler has been hailed as an instrumental silence breaker. In 2017, she appeared on the cover of Time Magazine as one of the publication’s Persons of the Year alongside Ashley Judd and Taylor Swift. In 2018, she joined the New York Times as a technology editor for the Opinion section. Now 28, she has a 2-year-old daughter with husband Chad Rigetti, the founder of a quantum computing company.
Fowler works from her home in the suburbs of the Bay Area — “pretty far out of San Francisco,” though she will not reveal where, due to privacy concerns. Sifting through the newspaper’s op-ed submissions, Fowler said she’s observed a shift in attitude from those who work in Silicon Valley.
“A lot of venture capitalists used to pitch their businesses by saying, ‘We’re the Uber of this or that,’ and that has stopped,” she says. “It’s not a company to aspire to anymore. A lot of good companies, their first thought is: ‘I never want this to happen here.’ And so that gives me a lot of hope.”
Why did you decide to expand your blog post into a book?
At first, I really didn’t want to write the book. I wanted to close the door on that chapter of my life, because it’s so painful to talk about. Having my whole life out there for everyone to read about and talking about the most intimate, personal things in my life — that was really, really vulnerable and very scary for me.
Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick resigned as chief executive of the ride-hailing giant Wednesday, pushed out by investors just a week after he announced he was going on an indefinite leave of absence.The San Francisco startup, valued at near $70 billion, has been rocked this year by allegations of a corrosive culture that allowed sexual harassment and other bad behavior to go unchecked for years. Uber drivers have their say about Kalanick’s resignation Column: With Travis Kalanick out, we’ll see the real value of Uber — and it won’t be prettyHere’s a timeline with the highlights and lowlights of Uber’s 2017.
But I thought about it so much, and I realized I had to write the book for two reasons. The first was that I really wanted to help and inspire people who might be going through similar situations. I’m such a book reader, and reading other people’s experiences and words helped me. I realized I could write that book for the people of the future who might be deciding whether they should speak up or what to do about the mistreatment they faced. The second was that all the world knew about me was my 3,000-word, very carefully constructed blog post. That was what defined me to the world, and I really thought it was important to tell my whole story.
In the book, you write about how Uber HR representatives made you feel like you were oversensitive and making a big deal over nothing. Did you ever question if they were right?
Yes. I think that’s pretty natural, when someone tells you what you’re experiencing isn’t real or important. I definitely felt, at times, like, “Oh my gosh, am I messing up? Have I really lost sight of everything?” I kept myself sane by building a bubble around myself. Working at this company that had values that were very different from my own — like aggression and toe-stepping — didn’t ring true for me. I didn’t like feeling that that was what I had to do to succeed at the company. So those things stayed outside [the bubble] and I tried to remember: I want to be kind. I want to be just and truthful and compassionate. Those are the things I’m going to focus on, and I’m going to judge myself by my standards.
A big part of my understanding was learning that this kind of behavior is illegal. Propositioning your staff is sexual harassment, and it’s illegal. A lot of people don’t realize the gravity of that kind of treatment. It’s important to educate yourself about what your legal rights are. Federal employment law guarantees you a workplace free of harassment and retaliation. This isn’t just a he said/she said or someone being oversensitive.
How did you develop your moral compass?
My parents really raised me to always do the right thing. I grew up very poor, but they really instilled in me and my siblings that it’s not what you have but who you are that matters. I grew up reading the Stoics and Immanuel Kant, and they talked about how so much of life is beyond our control. But there are some things I can control, and at Uber, I could control how I wanted to tell my story.
After publishing your blog post, you write that private investigators solicited your friends and family for personal information about you, and you suspect you were being followed. Did those close to you believe you, or think you were being paranoid?
I didn’t talk to many people about it, because sometimes they just wouldn’t believe me. But slowly, I met other women in the industry, like [tech journalist] Sarah Lacy, who told me, “You’re not crazy.” That was such an important moment for me, to know I wasn’t being paranoid and these things really were happening. Another thing that was very helpful to me was there was a documented history of Uber hiring private investigators. They had a history of using these intimidation tactics. After all this happened, I asked the new Uber CEO whether they still had private investigators following me and he said they had “killed all that crap.” That was more evidence and confirmation for me.
What was your reaction to Travis Kalanick being ousted from the company months after your blog post was published?
I was just really shocked. I didn’t know if it had been me that did it because so much came out after my blog post — it was just the tip of the iceberg. It’s too overwhelming for me to think about.
Do you think that the culture at Uber has changed since you left?
I don’t work there anymore, so I can’t speak from direct experience. Many of my friends have left. I do hope that it’s a lot better. I’m hopeful that it is. They’ve made some good moves around forced arbitration, and that’s very encouraging. What I would love to hear from them is that that was the old Uber, and they’re not like that anymore.
You wrote your blog post in February 2017, about eight months before the #MeToo movement took hold. Do you think speaking up helped encourage other women to do the same?
I hope that my blog post encouraged people. I don’t want to be one of those people who takes a bunch of credit. It was many women’s voices over the span of many years.
Did Uber try to stop you from writing this book?
I cannot say and should not say anything on that subject. But nothing can stop me at this point. I have done so much to make sure that every single word in this book is true, to the best of my knowledge. I saw the impact my blog post had, and I’m so excited to see what this book inspires.
Are you concerned that Uber might try to retaliate against you now that the book is published?
After the blog post, some of those experiences were really scary. I do have a lot of fear around what might happen. I think the worst. The thing that scares me the most is if I would hear that these places haven’t changed. It’s scary to blow the whistle. It’s so absurd that I have to be so terrified just of telling my story and saying, “These things happened to me.”
I’m guessing you don’t use Uber anymore.
I’m banned from their service. I’ve tried to sign up before, and every time it tells me I can’t make an account. I use Lyft and I use BART.
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