NEW YORK ― Before Susan Fowler, then 25, took down the CEO of Uber with a blog post exposing the company’s toxic, sexist culture, she’d already overcome some daunting obstacles.
The daughter of an evangelical preacher, she grew up dirt poor in rural Arizona, Fowler writes in a new memoir, “Whistleblower.” She and her six siblings were homeschooled until their mother was forced to go back to work. Fowler then taught herself at night, with a curriculum she designed, while working at less-than-minimum-wage jobs during the day. She landed a full scholarship to Arizona State University and from there elbowed her way into a transfer to the Ivy League.
Yet there’s one obstacle that she hasn’t been able to get around, Fowler writes. And that’s sexism. Multiple incidents of humiliation, gaslighting and retaliation during her time in college and then at a series of Silicon Valley startups culminated with her “very strange year” at Uber.
Fowler’s 2017 blog post went viral, leading to the ouster of Uber’s co-founder Travis Kalanick as well as the firing of 20 other people inside the high-profile company. It helped drive the Me Too movement. Now, her book comes at a time when the conversation around sexual harassment seems to have lost some of that drive.
One sharp example: after years spent criticizing Donald Trump for the way he treats women, Democrats are contemplating nominating Michael Bloomberg, a presidential candidate with a history of sexist remarks and a track record of harassment and discrimination lawsuits against him and his company. The details of those claims are murky because the women who complained ended up signing non-disclosure agreements that bound them to silence.
Fowler’s experiences are a reminder of what happens when a woman is not silenced. She chose to write a blog post, knowing that if she filed suit against Uber, the company would force her into arbitration and her story would never come to light.
And she wanted to go public to help others who had been mistreated, Fowler told a small gathering in New York City on Wednesday night.
“I knew I had to do it on my own blog because no one else is going to tell my story for me,” said Fowler, who is now the technology op-ed editor at The New York Times.
Her new book goes far beyond the blog post, offering up more details about how Uber treated its workers during Fowler’s time there.
She exposes the ride-sharing company’s human resources department as a tool for gaslighting workers and enforcing the status quo. According to the memoir, HR representatives at Uber told Fowler on multiple occasions that she was the problem ― not the supervisor who propositioned her or the manager who threatened to fire her for speaking up.
“I felt like I was losing my mind,” she said during her talk on Wednesday.
Fowler showed up to the event, an interview with former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson (another woman who spoke truth to power), wearing a black leather motorcycle jacket. “I wore the jacket for a reason,” she said, recalling one of the more absurd moments of her time at Uber.
Fowler said she and a few other female engineers were told they wouldn’t be receiving the leather jackets that the company was giving its male engineers. Because there were so few women, Uber could only get a bulk discount on the men’s jackets.
“They decided it wouldn’t be fair to the men if the women had more expensive jackets. If we really wanted equality, we should realize that’s what this was,” Fowler said to laughter in the audience.
After Fowler reported the jacket incident to HR, her manager told her that if she ever complained to the department again, she would be fired.
She’d contacted HR before. Each time she did, there was retaliation, Fowler said Wednesday night.
“Have you ever considered that you might be the problem here at Uber?” one HR representative asked her in a meeting to discuss the jackets ― a moment recounted in Fowler’s book. “All the complaints you’ve made to HR have one thing in common, and that thing is you.”
The conversation ended with the rep explaining to Fowler that the reason more white men are engineers is because they are just really good at engineering. (Fowler notes in “Whistleblower” that actually there are more Asian male engineers at the company.)
Despite the reactions from her manager and HR to her complaint about the jackets, Fowler was undeterred.
“While I was sitting in the meeting with him, I was typing a letter to HR,” Fowler told the audience, explaining that she documented every instance of wrongdoing that happened during her time at Uber.
“I wanted a record,” she said.
A Culture Of Abuse
Working in Silicon Valley was Fowler’s Plan B after she was blocked from graduate school in physics because of blatant sexual discrimination at the University of Pennsylvania, she writes in her memoir. Surely, the tech world wouldn’t be as bad, she thought.
But she was propositioned by her boss on her first day at Uber, Fowler memorably recounted in her 2017 blog post. After she complained to HR, she was told that it was his first offense, that he was a high performer and that they weren’t comfortable disciplining him. Instead, they give her the “opportunity” to transfer to another group at Uber so that this guy wouldn’t give her a bad performance review.
Learning later that it wasn’t the first time he’d done this, she led a group of colleagues to file HR complaints.
Once she transferred to another group, she writes in “Whistleblower,” she got a new male manager. He didn’t try to hook up with her ― but he bullied, yelled and humiliated her.
“How did you get hired?” he asked her. He and other male managers told her repeatedly that she was not a real engineer. She writes that demeaning comments like that were typical at Uber. Employees were made to feel inferior and less-than; they were berated for “mistakes” and driven to work long hours at their bosses’ whims.
At Uber, women and people of color were humiliated, isolated and driven to depression, Fowler writes. One Black employee, Joseph Thomas, died by suicide. His widow and friends said publicly that job stress played a role.
Fowler portrays Thomas’ death as a turning point for her. She stopped seeing herself and her colleagues as the problem and stopped believing her bosses when they berated her.
“The problem wasn’t me or any of Uber’s other low-level employees but Uber’s culture ― a culture created and sustained by multiple levels of executives and managers who gradually, cruelly ground employees down until they felt life was no longer worth living. I was determined not to be the next victim.” she writes.
Since Fowler posted her initial allegations three years ago, Uber has made changes, implementing the recommendations from former Attorney General Eric Holder’s internal investigation, strengthening its human resources policies and bringing in a new legal team led by a former Justice Department official. The company has forced out many bad actors in addition to Kalanick. Insiders have told HuffPost that the culture is vastly different.
Uber’s new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, essentially went on a two-year apology tour to help revamp the company’s image, reported New York Times writer Mike Isaac. Recently the company, which has been struggling financially, even came clean about the number of sexual assaults that take place during its customer trips.
“Susan’s courage to speak up was a catalyst for much-needed change at Uber and in countless other organizations around the world,” an Uber spokesperson told HuffPost.
Fowler said Wednesday night that she is still banned from using the service, however.
How Discrimination Destroys Women’s Careers
In one of the best insights in the book, Fowler dismantles the diversity, inclusion and work-life balance policies that tech companies use to signal their virtue.
At one point, she learned that her then-supervisor at Uber had been giving women poor performance reviews to stop them from transferring out of his group via promotions. That, in turn, kept up his “diversity numbers.”
“The issue wasn’t that Uber needed to be more diverse and inclusive,” she writes. “The issue was that Uber had a culture that ignored and violated civil rights and employment laws.”
Fowler wryly points out that copies of Arianna Huffington’s book on the importance of sleep were stacked up all over the Uber offices, even as employees were shuffling around on little sleep. (Huffington served on Uber’s board of directors from 2016 to 2019.)
Perhaps even more disturbing than what happened to Fowler at Uber is what happened after she left the company and came forward with her blog post. In the book, she writes that she was followed in San Francisco by a private investigator Uber had hired. Her friends and family told her they received strange phone calls from people looking to learn more about her.
“I was followed and stalked by private investigators up until the writing of this book,” she recounts. “Several people warned me that my life was in danger.”
When Fowler eventually asks Khosrowshahi if the company still had investigators following her, he told her “that he ‘killed all that crap,‘” she writes. “Uber’s use of private investigators, he said, was ‘just insane.’ It was ‘unreal what was going on.’”
It’s not always easy to describe how sexual discrimination works. Harassment and discrimination on the job can be harder to identify when they’re not clear-cut assault or Weinstein-level monstrosity.
Fowler, though, is able to perfectly articulate the horror at Uber. Crucially, her book also broadens the view beyond Uber, offering a clear-eyed exploration of what workplace sexual discrimination looks like, why it’s so toxic and how it destroys ambitions, careers and lives.
“[T]he institutions were stronger and more powerful than I was, and they’d always had something I desperately wanted, something they could hold over my head, something they could take away,” she writes, recalling the day she published her blog post. “Until today.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.