Uber whistleblower Susan Fowler: ‘Everything was chaos’
Whistleblowing is such a lonely business that I was prepared for Susan Fowler to be a rather withdrawn, standoffish lunch date. Instead, she arrives grinning, wearing a bright-pink jumper and exclaiming how happy she is to be here. Although we have never met before, she reaches out for a hug hello and immediately starts chatting.
Now 28, Fowler was just 25 when she published a blog post about the sexual harassment and discrimination she encountered while working at Uber. The blog was a sensation, read six million times in the first few weeks. Fowler’s meticulous, authoritative dissection of the company exposed the rot in tech’s shiniest start-up and precipitated the exit of its founder, Travis Kalanick, as chief executive. Fowler was dubbed Silicon Valley’s suffragette. She appeared to be the rare whistleblower able to speak out without retaliation.
In reality, her life became tumultuous as soon as she pressed publish. Her email and social media accounts were hacked. Friends and family were contacted by people she suspects were private investigators and she was followed to and from work by strangers. While she was being featured on the cover of Time magazine and hailed as the FT’s person of the year in 2017, she was growing more isolated and afraid, unable to sleep at night.
“It was so scary,” she says, shaking her head at the memory. “Just knowing that someone out there, you don’t know who, is combing through every part of your life.” Things became easier as time passed. “But there’s always that low-level background fear.”
Given how alienating it is to speak out, I wonder if she sought out people who’d gone through something similar. Is she in a WhatsApp group with Edward Snowden and other famous whistleblowers? She cackles at this — mostly at the idea of trusting an app owned by Facebook. “I wish there was! No, there’s no group that I’m aware of. And I think also, if there were, we would know better than to be on WhatsApp.”
Instead, she has written a book, Whistleblower, that answers questions she would have liked to ask someone who had lived through the experience. “How did they make the decision, you know, and what were they afraid of? And what happened afterwards. Did they survive? Did they make it out OK?”
The downtown San Francisco taqueria Fowler has picked for lunch is an odd setting for a conversation about workplace sexual harassment. At a busy corner of the gentrified SoMa district, it looks like a cheerfully decorated industrial car park. The concrete walls echo with loud trumpet music, and the foldable metal chairs seem designed to stop anyone lingering too long and holding up the queue of people waiting at the door.
Uno Dos Tacos is popular partly because the tacos are good but mostly because it is right around the corner from a number of tech offices — including one of Uber’s. This is where Fowler and her colleagues would come to console one another about their company’s dysfunctional workplace. “Oh wow,” she says, looking around. “I haven’t been here since I worked at Uber. This is . . . weird.” If there are any Uber employees in here today, she does not seem to recognise them. But the company has changed a lot in the past few years — partly as a result of her blog.
Founded in 2009, Uber was the hottest start-up in the US when Fowler joined in late 2015. Its app was on smartphones around the world and it promised to transform urban transportation. Fowler’s friends and family were impressed. “When I was interviewing at Uber and talking to people about it, the reaction was overwhelmingly — ‘That is the company to be at.’”
At the time, Uber was valued at $51bn. Its valuation kept climbing while Fowler worked there, though it has since fallen back after a disappointing market listing. Internally, the win-at-all-costs culture had created a corrosive atmosphere, which Fowler says was driven by “competitiveness, aggression and paranoia”, and where casual sexism and racism flourished.
Fowler’s near 3,000-word essay about her life as an entry-level engineer, titled “Reflecting on One Very, Very Strange Year at Uber”, revealed how commonplace harassment and discrimination were at the company. Uber’s HR department seemed to reinforce the dysfunction. In one example, Fowler reports sleazy messages sent to her by her manager and is told there will be no repercussions because he is a star performer and this is his first offence (she later learns this is not true). Fowler is given the option to move to a new team or stay and expect a poor performance review.
UNO DOS TACOS
595 Market Street San Francisco, CA 94105
Taco basket — asada and carnitas $7.50
Taco basket — pescado and tinga $8.25
Tortilla chips and salsa $2.50
Fountain soda $2
Agua fresca $2.75
Total (inc tax and service) $32.95
2nd Street (across the road) Coffee x 2 $4.50
“It felt meaningful to work there, and I feel a lot of the employees that I worked with felt the same way,” she says of that time. “They were there because they wanted to build something good — that was good for the world. And we all worked very, very hard. But everything around us was chaos.”
Anyone who has felt undermined or bullied at work will recognise the grinding impact this had. Fowler says she and her colleagues were made to feel “worthless”. Over the course of a year, the proportion of female engineers in her division fell from 25 per cent to less than 6 per cent. Worst of all, a black 33-year-old co-worker called Joseph Thomas died by suicide. His widow has said publicly that Uber’s work culture was to blame, claiming the company dismantled his self-esteem.
Weird, unhappy workplaces are not rare. Standing up to those workplaces is. As we go to order at the counter, I realise that I keep asking Fowler a variation on the same question: what makes a person choose to blow up their life and take a public stand against the organisation and industry they belong to?
While I’m thinking about this, Fowler has already asked for asada and carnitas tacos and a side order of tortilla chips. She politely ignores my suggestion that we order a beer — day-drinking is not really the done thing in San Francisco. Instead I choose a strawberry agua fresca and she picks a soda from the self-serve machine. We settle down at a slightly sticky wooden table and I try a new angle. Maybe she spoke out because she underestimated what would come next?
Fowler disagrees. “We’ve all heard the stories or read the books or seen the movies about the people who blow the whistle,” she says. “And when you think about those things, there’s a pattern, which is that once you speak up your life is never the same. And most of the time it’s changed for the worse.”
But you hit publish anyway, I say. She explains her decision as the result of internal conflict. “If I thought about the consequences . . . publishing the blog post was not the right thing to do. But it seemed obvious to me that telling our stories and saying what’s going on is always the right thing to do.”
The reaction to her story went beyond anything Fowler had expected. Her email app instantly crashed, unable to cope with the volume of notifications. Then her phone. “I was like, 100 people will read it,” she says. “When we’re talking about millions, there are serious consequences. I was like, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ . . . I was so sure they would come after me.”
Institutions do not take kindly to people who try to expose their supposed wrongdoings. Yet Uber seemed to capitulate almost instantly. Kalanick even posted a link to Fowler’s account on Twitter, saying, “What’s described here is abhorrent & against everything we believe in.” Investigations were launched. More damaging stories emerged. Kalanick’s aggressive ambitions were blamed for the company’s problems and within five months he had stepped down as chief executive.
A buzzer goes off to let us know that our food is ready and I walk over to pick up a collection of little plastic baskets of tacos stuffed with shredded meat, tomatoes, lime and coriander. Along with the heaped side portion of black beans there are enough tortilla chips for us to share with every table around us. It’s easy to see why the portion sizes might appeal to young tech workers who need to wolf down their lunch and get back to the never-ending urgency of start-up work. It is a demanding industry, Fowler says: “People are expected to make their job their life.”
Before she joined Uber, Fowler was a physics graduate with student debt who decided to leverage her ability to code to join the Silicon Valley gold rush. But software engineering was not her life’s dream.
Born in Arizona, one of seven children, she grew up in rural poverty in a house that sometimes lacked electricity and running water. Her father was an evangelical preacher. The children were homeschooled to ensure they had a Christian-based education. She says that her father always encouraged her to be in the world, but not of the world.
“It makes sense, right. Because we were so poor and we had nothing. And you know, instead of letting that eat away at them, my parents were just like, ‘Well, you can still just be a good person. You can still have a good life. You can still have a life that counts for something.’”
An early indication of her ability to speak up for herself came when she told her family that she was dating girls. Given the rampant homophobia of the community she lived in, this was a frightening decision, though her family made it clear they loved her. But she was mature enough to recognise that any discrimination would be about “things that were beyond my control”.
Without a formal high-school education, Fowler managed to get herself to Arizona State University on a full scholarship. When she could not transfer to study physics, she went to the University of Pennsylvania.
The constant refrain in Whistleblower is Fowler’s wish to control her own fate. But her experience at Penn turned sour when a fellow student with mental-health problems harassed her and the university offered no support, leading her to abandon a career as a physicist.
The frustration of this seems to have tipped the scales when she was weighing up whether or not to blow the whistle at Uber. “I didn’t fight so hard to get an education and to do all these things to just, like, walk away,” she says. “Like I said, you know, I’d done that before. And I regretted not saying anything.”
Cultural shifts are messy. After Fowler’s blog was published, the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment gathered power. Allegations were made and powerful people lost jobs. Yet it is not clear that Silicon Valley, or anywhere else, has decided what should happen next.
The last diversity survey by tech law firm Fenwick & West found women hold just 14 per cent of executive positions at Silicon Valley companies. Black and Hispanic workers make up more than 28 per cent of the US private workforce but just 9 per cent in Silicon Valley. Some companies have tried to avoid disclosing diversity stats by claiming this would risk exposing trade secrets.
We have finished our tacos and are slowly working through the mountain of tortilla chips when I mention the news that movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was found guilty of rape that morning — an outcome that seemed to take even his accusers by surprise. Fowler looks blindsided. “Wait, really? Wow.” She is silent for some time and looks strangely sad. When I ask why she finds it difficult to answer. “Well . . . it’s sad to think about all the things that have happened — and how many women have been silenced.”
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Fowler is in favour of ending forced arbitration, in which companies deal with disputes in private. Uber has removed forced arbitration clauses for sexual misconduct claims. So have Facebook, Microsoft and Google. However, non-disclosure agreements that gag employees who agree settlements remain common across Silicon Valley.
The restaurant is emptying as workers return to their computers, so we walk out into the bright California sunshine and cross the road to pick up takeaway coffees. I ask why she thinks tech companies have problems with discrimination, given the industry is so vocal about progress and mission statements.
“The thing that underpins all these value statements that you hear in tech is ‘We’re changing the world,’” she says. “But it’s never ‘Are we changing the world for the better?’ Change on its own is not good. That is not a virtue.”
Uber is adamant that it has transformed for the better, calling Fowler’s blog a “catalyst for much-needed change”. Executives have been replaced and it is working with other companies to develop a corporate certification programme to address workplace harassment. Old corporate values such as “Always be hustlin’” have been replaced with “We do the right thing. Period.”
But not everything was replaced. Kalanick remained on the board of directors for over two years after stepping down as chief executive. Uber may have had a troubled year, with investors questioning whether its business will ever be profitable, but the company’s IPO made its founder a multi-billionaire.
Uber has also never confirmed whether it hired investigators to follow Fowler in 2017, though in Twitter direct messages, Fowler says, new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi told her he had “killed all that crap”. I ask if Khosrowshahi, known for his charm, has ever asked her to speak to Uber employees and show that old wounds have healed. “Do you think I ever would?” she says, shocked. No, I say. But I can imagine that he might ask. “No, I don’t think he’s ever asked.”
After we meet, I see that she has tweeted her desire to one day never have to say the word “Uber” ever again. Since leaving the company, she has had a baby daughter and changed jobs, becoming a tech opinion editor at the New York Times. Writing the book seems a sort of exorcism of her old life.
The tech industry would like to put Fowler’s blog post in the past too. I wonder if she thinks things have changed for the better since she published it. “I get asked this question all the time.” She looks serious. It is a tough question to answer. Then she grins. “I hope that it has changed, is my biggest thing. And if it hasn’t, you know . . . then I’ve given the next whistleblower a guidebook on what to do.”
Elaine Moore is deputy editor of Lex
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