Whistleblower, My Journey to Silicon Valley and Fight for Justice at Uber by Susan Fowler
Whistleblower by Susan Fowler was a book that made it’s way onto my TBR after I loved Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener. As mentioned in that review, I have my own experience of a venture-capitalist backed technology company in London (spoiler: it was not pretty!). Uncanny Valley left me hungry for more; I wanted to better understand why Silicon Valley creates such a toxic culture. In part, I also wanted validation for my own experience as a women – that I am not alone, we are not alone, and our voices are important.
Fowler’s memoir continues that discussion for me. She covers the topic with the same respect, sensitive, and humanity as Wiener; something that naturally endears her to the reader.
We join Fowler at the beginning of her childhood. I must admit I was a bit surprised that we started that early on; I wasn’t sure what the relevance would be. Nevertheless, it was important context setting, helping to build Fowler’s character, and help the reader view events through her eyes.
“I was able to sleep through the night if I read enough books during the day to occupy and quiet the mind”
Continuing through her adolescence, we also learn about her experience at Penn State University. Beating all the odds, defying all the statistics, Fowler put in a lot of extremely hard work to end up at a top University. There is quite a complicated journey to this point, but I’m going to leave that for you to read at your own leisure. The important take-away from this experience is that Fowler faced a lose-lose situation, and was ultimately punished for the acts of another. In her own words she says “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”. Systematic and wilful turning away from senior staff/management to harassment was something that Fowler had already been affected by before she entered the Big Tech/Silicon Valley world. Experiences like this shape you, impact you, and ultimately affect how you behave in the future.
“As horrifying as these experience I had were, they were nothing unique where I came from: every teenage girl I knew had experienced similarly disgusting treatment”
Next we join Fowler as she is beginning her journey in Silicon Valley that ultimate led to her employment at Uber. Along the journey Fowler found herself thinking “I would do whatever I need to do to survive there for one full year and then move on”. I relate to this. I relate to this BIG TIME. My 12 months in a startup were mostly fuelled by the feeling that I HAD to be in a job for at least 12 months, otherwise everyone would question why I left. Just get to the year, just one year, one year and then you’re free. It’s toxic. But ultimately, it’s also false. If you have a legitimate reason for leaving a company, others are open to that – if they want you and value your skills, then they’ll chose you.
“Uber didn’t just need more women engineers, or more employees or color; it needed to stop braking the law”
Specifically on the topic of Uber, Fowler is unequivocal – they were rogue. “Disregarding laws, rules, and regulations was so entrenched in Uber’s culture that managers within the company seemed to believe that various rules – including employment law and basic human decency – no longer applied to them”. For all her efforts, and other women’s efforts, their behaviour would not just change. Ultimately Fowler turned to writing, and on her blog released how Uber had treated it. It’s an emotional read, which you can find here. As with the other parts of her story, I do not wish to provide spoilers and so will avoid going into too much depth or detail. Instead, I want to focus on how powerful Fowler’s words are. The tone throughout the book is incredibly human, and you cannot help but empathise with her as a reader.
Whistleblower is an important contribution to the #MeToo discussion. This behaviour has to stop. It is not acceptable now, it has never been acceptable. Power dynamics will inevitably always be somewhat hard to manoeuvre, but human decency, respect, and boundaries are not. Harassment is not consigned to one industry; it’s not just in Silicon Valley, or Hollywood, or media – it is everywhere. I urge everyone to read this book. Familiarise yourself with what harassment looks like, examine your own behaviour, your own privilege, your own prejudice. We can only move on as a society when we fully understand where we are starting from.
I want to thank both Susan Fowler and Anna Wiener for their bravery, their courage, and their voices. Change will happen, you will not go unheard.
“To my daughter
It is my hope that when you are old enough to read this book, the world described within it is completely unrecognizable to you; that you, and the women of your generation, will live in a world where you can chase your dreams without fear of harassment, discrimination, and retaliation – a world where the only thing you have to fear is whether your dreams are big enough.”
‘Whistleblower’ in Facts:
Author: Susan Fowler
First Published: 2020
Publishing House: Viking, a Penguin imprint