There’s a good case that Uber would still have its notoriously toxic workplace culture were it not for Susan Fowler. The former Uber engineer wrote a viral Medium post in 2017 about sexual harassment she faced while working at the ride-hailing company, adding to a pile of scandals that led to co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick’s ouster, as well as an overhaul of how the company treats its employees (if not necessarily the workers who drive cars on its platform). Now Fowler—who works for the New York Times’ opinion section editing op-eds on technology—has released a memoir, Whistleblower, that includes a detailed and even grimmer look into her year at Uber. If New York Times technology reporter Mike Isaac’s recent book on the company, Super Pumped, gives a 30,000-foot view of how executives molded the workplace into a Hobbesian battlefield where tech bros did whatever they wanted to succeed, Whistleblower is an account from the trenches at the peak of Uber’s dysfunction. Fowler revises the Uber story by showing—through exasperating interaction after exasperating interaction with superiors and human resources employees—just how ugly it could be for its workers.
Though the broad strokes of the allegations in the book were already public knowledge thanks to her original blog post and additional reporting, Fowler adds details that show many Uber managers to not only be misogynistic, but also bafflingly petty about it. During her orientation when she first joined the company—which also included formal instructions not to date Kalanick—the new employees participated in a competition to determine the “most interesting person” in the group. Each table in the room nominated one person to be a contestant. Once Fowler and the other nominees got on stage, the software-engineering director leading the exercise abruptly pointed to all the women one by one and told them to leave. “I paused for a moment and laughed out loud, thinking it was a joke,” Fowler writes. “There’s no way, I thought to myself, that this guy just eliminated all of the women by accident.”
Fowler writes of another encounter with this same director later on, when she tried to find out why women were winning far fewer companywide awards for performance, despite being nominated at roughly the same frequency as men. The director, who also ran the awards committee, informed her that the inequity is a result of women not knowing how to write nominations. He then suggested the company could create a separate award just for women.
Whistleblower also gives us a fuller account of the sexual harassment saga that Fowler described in her 2017 post, in which she initially revealed that a manager named Jake had talked about his open relationship and then propositioned her on her first day joining his team. She immediately reported him to HR, but little was done because he was a “high performer” and it was purportedly his first offense.
Fowler writes in the memoir that her managers kept changing her desk assignment in the office after she made her complaint to ensure that she would sit alone. She also heard secondhand that Jake had been telling co-workers that she couldn’t “handle” a man like him, and that he’d tried to convince his team to go to a strip club for lunch. She writes that she and others make repeated complaints about him, which reached chief technology officer Thuan Pham, but they were repeatedly told that it was only his “first offense.” She describes the company then retaliating against this group of whistleblowers, forcing one of her allies to withdraw from his job for not being a “team player” and driving another to take a three-month medical leave as a result of the threats and bullying she’d endured for raising a fuss.
The most eye-opening and maddening allegations in the memoir largely have to do with how Uber’s HR representatives repeatedly stonewalled and lied to Fowler in almost every interaction she had with them. When she and her colleagues devised a plan to report Jake en masse, HR met with each of them separately. Fowler writes that during her meeting, an HR rep told her, “Actually, all the other employees were here to talk about you.” When she checked in with them later, they said that HR had separately told all of them the same thing. And then, in one of the strangest passages in the book, Fowler had yet another meeting with HR to discuss an incident in which all the male engineers were going to get leather jackets as gifts, but the women would be left out because there weren’t enough of them to get a bulk order deal for jackets in their sizes. In order to downplay her concerns, the HR rep offers a deeply problematic anecdote:
“Some people,” she said with a sigh, “see sexism and racism in places where there really isn’t any.” Then she told me a story. Several years ago, she said, she worked at an accounting firm. “They thought we had a diversity problem,” she continued, shaking her head in apparent disappointment, “because all of the accountants were female Asians.” But, she said, what people didn’t understand was that the firm didn’t really have a diversity problem, because “female Asians” were “good with numbers” and because “being good with numbers” was just “what they do.” It wasn’t sexism or racism, she insisted; it was simply the truth. Similarly, she concluded, white men were just really “good at engineering.”
While other accounts about Uber have tended to focus on Kalanick, he only appears briefly in person at a Christmas party in Fowler’s memoir and doesn’t say a word. Yet the noxious norms of the company he molded are omnipresent throughout the book and seem to shape most every interaction that Fowler describes. (The book also includes startling stories about the physics department at the University of Pennsylvania, where Fowler was an undergrad, and other Silicon Valley startups where she worked.) Whistleblower fills us in on how junior white-collar employees struggled to keep the culture he instilled from threatening their sanity, and how one of them was eventually able to tear it down.
By Susan Fowler. Viking.
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