In her memoir, Whistleblower, My Journey To Silicon Valley and Fight for Justice at Uber, software engineer Susan Fowler chronicles her experiences in the technology industry, including the year she spent working at the tech giant. From her rise from poverty, and her home-schooled childhood, to dreams of being a writer, Fowler is grit personified.
Poverty shaped Fowler’s existence and there is an underlying insecurity that never seems to leave her, even once she achieves success. While growing up in Arizona, Fowler recounts, “After all, what paths in life were open to a poor, white-trash woman in a rural town without any formal education?” Poverty, along with philosophical introspection, also drove her to realize that “Nobody was going to help me, so I needed to pull my life together all by myself”. And that she did. In fact, Fowler’s love of and reliance on philosophy is woven throughout her life.
There is a relentlessness and restlessness in her singular focus to overcome obstacles, whether it was teaching herself the required courses she needed for a high school transcript or transferring to the University of Pennsylvania when she was not able to major in physics at Arizona State University. At one point she notes, “I’d turned myself from an uneducated, poor, forgotten kid into an Ivy League student…and I’d done it all on my own.”
Fowler’s time at the University of Pennsylvania was a defining moment in her life and her experience there influenced how she reacted and responded to the sexual harassment and retaliation that she experienced later in her career. Her intellectual curiosity and perseverance got her through college, but it was not without pain and controversy. After having her Master’s degree in philosophy rescinded and her dreams of an advanced degree in physics derailed, Fowler acknowledges that “I didn’t speak up because I was afraid. I didn’t do what I knew was right because I was afraid. And I vowed that I would never make the same mistake again.”
After working at two tech companies, one of which she was subjected to a sexist boss who made anti-Semitic remarks, Fowler finally thought she was on her way to fulfilling her career goals when she joined Uber. On her first full day, she receives a series of sexually inappropriate chat messages from her manager. This is when Fowler’s real education begins. Throughout her time at Uber, Fowler documents everything assiduously (every chat and every email) and dutifully reports to Human Resources following each discriminatory incident, though by the time Fowler is ready to leave Uber, in an email to the head of HR, she asks, “How do I report HR to HR?”
Fowler, whether due to her childhood or general optimism, exhibits a certain naiveté. It took the sexual harassment, bullying, physical isolation, and retaliation that she experienced at Uber to have the courage to speak up. Workplace misconduct is not new; it is ubiquitous, but after the suicide of a fellow Uber colleague, as well as a series of other incidents, Fowler came to the conclusion that, “…the price of doing nothing seemed just as great, if not far greater, than the cost of doing something. I feared that Uber would drive another employee to suicide.”
And so, Fowler, knowing the risk to her career, did something. With her blog post, “Reflecting on One Very, Very Strange Year at Uber,” she shined a lens on sexual harassment in the workplace and sexism in the technology industry. Ultimately, as a result of the internal investigation conducted in light of Fowler’s revelations, it led to the ouster of its founder and CEO as well as an evaluation and re-calibration of its cultural values and by extension, its corporate culture. Her actions also had a domino effect on the rest of Silicon Valley.
In writing Whistleblower, Fowler finally accomplished one of her dreams, not just to be a writer, but to be the subject, rather than the object, of her life, “the person who made things happen rather than the women who had things happen to her.”