Before Susan Fowler was a whistleblower she was a violinist, and before she was a violinist she fed fruit flies to spiders that were milked for their venom at a small Arizona business known as Spider Pharm. In February 2017, Fowler was thrown into the public eye after she published a damning blogpost exposing the toxic sexism she experienced working as a software engineer at Uber. And in her new memoir, Whistleblower, she explains how she came to shake up one of the world’s most valuable startups. But, despite the title of her book, Fowler defies one-word labels. She is a musician, a writer, a physicist, a philosopher: a person who demands to be seen, she has written, as more than “that woman who was sexually harassed”.
Six million people read Fowler’s blogpost in which she chronicled her time at what was then the No 1 disrupter in Silicon Valley. In the post – titled “Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year At Uber” – Fowler recounted how she was pestered by her new boss on her first official day at the company. “He was in an open relationship, he said, and his girlfriend was having an easy time finding new partners but he wasn’t,” Fowler recalled. “It was clear that he was trying to get me to have sex with him.” Fowler immediately reported the conversation to HR.
The manager was let off the hook because he was a “high performer”. That was just the beginning of the sexism Fowler would face there. Over the course of her year at Uber, she was given negative performance reviews by another boss, who wanted to prevent her being promoted and thus keep her and other women on his team, and was told she was “the common theme” in all the reports she made to HR about sexist comments. In one bizarre incident, 120 male engineers were rewarded with official leather jackets, while the six women engineers were told that jackets for them were unaffordable.
Fowler’s blogpost was instantly explosive. It was shared about 22,000 times on Twitter alone, and Fowler recalls going to a book shop a few hours after posting and overhearing two people “arguing about whether I was telling the truth”. A day after the post, former US attorney general Eric Holder was hired to conduct an independent review on Uber’s working environment; the investigation was to be overseen by Arianna Huffington and Uber’s chief HR officer. Fowler’s post inspired the tech industry’s MeToo half a year before the #MeToo hashtag even existed, as other women came forward with stories of sexism in Silicon Valley. In the summer, venture capitalist Dave McClure resigned and wrote a blogpost called “I’m a Creep. I’m Sorry” after the New York Times reported he had sent sexually inappropriate messages to a potential employee. In December 2017, Fowler and four other women (among them Taylor Swift) were chosen as Time magazine’s people of the year, “the silence breakers”.
Fowler (second right) was one of the ‘silence breakers’ who wereTime magazine’s people of the year 2017. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
“I have no idea,” Fowler says over the phone from New York, when I ask why her post gained such traction. “At the time no information I had told me that my story would be treated differently from anyone else’s.” Fowler had spent a year at Uber trying to get the company to care about sexism and bullying – her complaints had always fallen on deaf ears. “I was speaking the truth in a system that doesn’t value the truth, but as soon as you go out of it, then speaking the truth actually has an impact. It turns out a lot of people care… not everybody is interested in ignoring bad behaviour. I learned I had to go outside the system.”
In truth, it is likely that the response to Fowler’s post was connected to a wider backlash against Uber that was occurring at the time (the “Criticism” section on Uber’s Wikipedia page now includes 21 separate items). A month before Fowler’s exposé, Uber agreed to pay $20m to the US government after the Federal Trade Commission accused the company of misleading drivers about potential earnings, while six months before that, the press had begun to uncover sexual harassment by Uber drivers. After a BuzzFeed News investigation, Uber revealed there had been 170 customer reports (by English-speaking users) with a “legitimate claim of sexual assault” between December 2012 and August 2015, while a freedom of information request by the Sun found 32 London drivers had been accused of assault between 2015 and 2016.
Holder’s investigation into Uber concluded that the company’s culture was broken and advised improved HR training and better complaint tracking procedures. Holder also recommended that Uber “review and reallocate the responsibilities of Travis Kalanick”, Uber’s CEO at the time. Kalanick reportedly had knowledge of sexual harassment allegations within the company and failed to act, and had a reputation himself for inappropriate behaviour (in 2014, he boasted about his status in the company attracting women – “We call that Boob-er”). On 21 June 2017, he resigned as CEO.
It was hard to revisit. These were some of the most extreme and painful experiences of my life
On her first day at Uberversity – Uber’s three-day-long training programme for new recruits – Fowler and her class were told that they weren’t allowed to date “TK”. Confusion abounded as the instructor told them “that she knew all of us wanted to date TK, but it was, she said with a sigh, against the rules”. It wasn’t until later that Fowler realised TK was Kalanick – in Whistleblower she recounts a brief interaction where she encouraged him to dance to improve the mood at a Christmas party. How much does Fowler believe Kalanick’s resignation solved the problems at Uber? While she believes a culture of workplace bullying originated from the top, she also describes the company’s problems as “systemic”.
“At Uber, every time something happened I would escalate it, and eventually got to the point where I was sitting across from the CTO [chief technology officer], and telling him everything that was going on. He promised to fix it and promised to take it seriously, just like all the HR people before,” Fowler says. “And then he sent someone from HR to speak to me and it was the same thing: this is their first offence, they’re a high performer, we don’t feel comfortable punishing them, we’ve given them a stern warning. I remember thinking: ‘This isn’t just one manager, this is every HR person here and everyone up my management chain…’ I had to leave.”
That chief technology officer is Thuan Pham, still Uber’s CTO today. According to an investigation by digital media company the Information, Pham was allowed to keep his job after sharing evidence with Holder that proved he took Fowler’s case seriously after their meeting. She describes feeling hopeful after their conversation and angry and tearful when she finally heard from Pham’s HR liaison, who said Uber would not fire a manager who threatened her job after she reported him to HR. Fowler had told Pham how that manager had blocked her transfer to another department so he could earn kudos for having women on his team (when Fowler joined Uber, 25% of its engineers were women – by the time she left, they made up just 6%).
Fowler is honoured at the 22nd Annual Webby awards in New York, 2018. Photograph: Andy Kropa/Invision/AP
When asked how she feels about the fact that Pham is still employed by Uber, Fowler is diplomatic. “What I do hope is things have changed, and that what happened to me won’t happen to anyone else again,” she says.
Most of Fowler’s friends have now left Uber, and she says she has no insight into how it is run today. “I hope that things are getting better – it’s been three years!” she laughs. When she wrote her blogpost, she was working at another startup, Stripe, but just over year and a half later, she joined the New York Times as a technology editor. She sounds very happy when she speaks of her career in journalism, and seems pleased to declare herself “outside” the tech industry now. In Whistleblower’s epilogue she describes her new priorities: writing, learning languages, reading Go, Dog. Go! to her infant daughter.
“It was hard to revisit,” she says of writing Whistleblower, “These were some of the most extreme and painful experiences of my life.” It’s no wonder that Fowler is so happy to have moved on – after her blogpost exploded, private investigators began prying into her personal life, attempting to discredit her. Strangers would ring her family and friends and ask questions about her past, rumours spread that Uber competitor Lyft had paid her to write her post, men followed her on foot and in cars. “It was terrifying because I didn’t know what they were looking for or what their goal was, or what they wanted to do with the information,” she says. “It was very, very scary.”
Yet despite these experiences, Fowler wants readers to go away thinking not that she is “the woman who was harassed at Uber” but rather “the woman who stood up and spoke out about harassment at Uber”. Less the story of how Fowler became a victim, Whistleblower is more of a guide to how she became a hero. She is most animated during our conversation when talking about the philosophers she read as a teen who informed her moral code – Plato, Epictetus, Isaiah Berlin.
“I did not have control over my circumstances but I did have control over my character, the decisions I made, the actions I took, and the things that I said. And that was so important for me.”
The most powerful way to tell the truth is with documentation. Then nobody can say it’s a ‘he says, she says’ situation
Fowler’s determination to blow the whistle on Uber had its roots in an incident in her past when she felt she had “very much been morally obligated to speak out and didn’t”. While studying physics at the University of Pennsylvania, Fowler befriended a student named Tim, who became suicidal. When she sought help from the administration, she was told that Tim was her problem. Tim grew increasingly erratic, and threatened to kill himself if Fowler did not return his romantic affections. When Fowler sought help again, the university blamed her for upsetting Tim and tried to remove her from classes she shared with him before rescinding her master’s degree. When she pursued her complaints, the university claimed to have “evidence” that she lied about her relationship with Tim (they wouldn’t show her this evidence). Though she contacted lawyers and considered suing, she ultimately “decided to move on with my life”.
“It’s amazing to me how everything that happened in my life then was preparing me for this moment,” Fowler says today. “I learned all these big lessons so when the time came to blow the whistle on Uber, I was ready.” By the time she worked at Uber, Fowler says, it was “second nature” to screenshot, report, and forward any “weird” interactions, as well as save this evidence to the cloud and print off hard copies. She says her book is a way to share those lessons with others. “The most powerful thing you can do is tell the truth, and the most powerful way you can tell the truth is with all this documentation. Then nobody can say it’s a ‘he says, she says’ situation because look, I have the evidence.”
Though these lessons are universal, Fowler’s account is intensely personal. She doesn’t reference #MeToo or write at any length about accusations of sexual assault by Uber drivers. Her story is very much her own – she documents living in poverty, falling in love with the violin, getting her first job at Spider Pharm aged 11, and home-schooling herself. She paints a picture of a ferociously independent and determined person: as a student at Penn, she would fall asleep immersed in her textbooks, eager to teach herself the science and maths she needed to keep up. She also admits to things that private investigators would no doubt have loved to dig up – after her father died of brain cancer when she was a student, she checked herself into a mental health facility.
“I almost didn’t include that… but I realised I didn’t want people who’d been through something similar to think they couldn’t speak up too,” she says. Her book is a way to provide a “fuller picture” than a magazine cover, she adds, to show that you don’t have to be the perfect victim to blow the whistle.
“I want to encourage people to speak up no matter what, and the best way for me to do that is to be open about my life.”
Fowler with a festival goer following her Power of a Story session at the SXSW conference in Austin, Texas, last year, Photograph: Rita Quinn/Getty Images for SXSW
Can we really expect individual women to find solutions to the problem of systemic harassment? It’s one thing to inspire women to speak out; quite another to persuade them try to change the conditions in which harassment occurs. “I know, that’s the paradox, right?” she says. “That’s the painful part… because we know it’s very scary and we know what happens to women who speak out.” In the end, though, she says: “You have to do what’s right for you – in myself I felt a deep moral obligation.”
The jury is still out on whether meaningful changes have occurred in Silicon Valley in the three years since Fowler’s blogpost (another memoir released in January, Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener, also describes an industry rife with sexual harassment). Uber isn’t even the first startup where Fowler faced discrimination. After university, she was hired by the financial services company Plaid, where she learned her male peers were being paid $50,000 more than she was. After that, she worked at software company PubNub, where her boss made gasp-inducing statements that led Fowler to believe he “truly, deeply, passionately hated women”.
All in all, it paints a depressing picture of life as a female engineer. Fowler says she “realised I really wasn’t welcome in those environments”, but also says she doesn’t want to dissuade other women from entering the field. “I don’t want to discourage any young women from pursuing their dreams. I think the best thing they can do is understand what their rights are and stand up for themselves and advocate for themselves, and then when things start to go wrong just speak out. The more of us who speak out, the louder our voices will be, until they just can’t be ignored.”
Fowler’s memoir ends with her riding in a Lyft – Uber’s rival in the US. Is it a final “fuck you” to Uber? Evidence for conspiracy theorists to pounce upon?
“They’re the only ones who will drive me around!” she laughs. “Uber banned me, so I can’t sign up. I tried signing up and it said they can’t complete my registration, and I’m like, ‘Yeaa–aah, I wonder why!”
• Whistleblower: My Journey to Silicon Valley and Fight for Justice at Uber by Susan Fowler is published by Viking (£21)