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A Lonely Fight Against Sexual Harassment in Tech

Susan Fowler’s memoir is a remarkable record of personal struggle—but shows the problem with trusting the system.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Susan Fowler grew up in deep poverty in rural Yarnell, Arizona, one of seven children of a preacher and his wife in the 1990s. She once overheard her mother say the family had made just $5,000 that year; there were times when there was no food in the refrigerator or when they had no running water, electricity, or functioning sewer. She was homeschooled by her mother until her early teens, at which point her mother had to go to work and, thanks to mysterious red tape, she had to educate herself because the local schools wouldn’t enroll her. Fowler is self-taught in almost everything she knows.

Viking, 272 pp., $28.00

It’s clear that she believed, and still believes, strongly in the idea that someone who works hard can pave her own path through life toward the goals she sets for herself. In the introduction to her book Whistleblower: My Journey to Silicon Valley and Fight for Justice at Uber, she quotes the philosopher Isaiah Berlin: “I wish my life and decisions to depend on myself, not on external forces of whatever kind. I wish to be the instrument of my own, not of other men’s, acts of will. I wish to be a subject, not an object; to be moved by reason, by conscious purposes, which are my own.” To which she adds, “This book is the story of my journey to become the subject, not the object, of my own life.” It’s a refrain—subject, not object—throughout the book, a guiding concept as she tries to make life decisions. 

In the story Fowler has to tell, and the genre in which she’s working, this is far from straightforward. Whistleblower grew out of a blog post she wrote in February 2017, detailing her harassment as an employee at Uber and the way she was mistreated after she took her complaints to H.R. The book is a #MeToo memoir, the latest entry in a genre largely authored by prominent, white-collar women who found their careers derailed by abuse and discrimination, from Ellen Pao, who wrote about discrimination at the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, to Fox and Friends co-host Gretchen Carlson, who has described the culture of sexual harassment at Fox News. It’s an inherently dicey genre, which has to recognize the severity of things that were done to the narrator—as an object—but which, in order to provide the sense of an ending, has to show the narrator regaining control of the narrative, becoming the hero of her own story. 

Each of these books tries to dissolve that tension by positioning itself not as a recounting of trauma but as a step toward empowerment, with uplifting titles like Pao’s Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change and Carlson’s Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back. Fowler’s own book is framed as a broad fight for equality, an act of resistance for all women, yet it’s a distinctive form of struggle—closely linked to the idea of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. Fowler’s focus is resolutely individualistic; her sources of inspiration are willpower, aptitude, and a sense of personal responsibility. And though Whistleblower shows starkly how gender discrimination warps women’s careers, it also struggles to admit that this idea of meritocracy was a farce to begin with.

As a child, Susan Fowler dreams of becoming either a professional violinist or an architect. Her early years are characterized by her quest for knowledge and her perseverance. She teaches herself Ancient Greek, piano, and quantum theory; she makes the dean’s list nearly every semester at the University of Pennsylvania and takes graduate courses as an undergrad. But it’s also at college that she has her first experience of sexual harassment, in a case that is badly mishandled by the authorities.

In her freshman year, she excels at physics. But a male student joins her class at the end of her second semester and begins to fixate on her. He confesses to romantic feelings for her and threatens to kill himself if she doesn’t feel the same way. When she reaches out to professors and other administrators, they tell her to focus on helping him through his mental health crisis. “This is your job now,” his adviser tells her. Because her presence upsets him, the school moves her to a different research group and bars her from taking the same classes as him, with the result she’s no longer able to complete the research and coursework to get into grad school.

Fowler has learned to code, so she decides to go into technology. “While I’d dreamed of becoming a violinist, an architect, a writer, a physicist, and a philosopher, I’d never felt that being a software engineer was my calling,” she writes. But she needs money. So she takes a job at a startup called Plaid, which is “half company, half frat house.” When she begins, she is the only woman in the office in a technical role. She eventually learns male co-workers make about $50,000 more than her while working fewer hours, but when she asks for a raise she is denied. She quits six months after she started. At her next job, with another startup called PubNub, she works for a boss who shames her for wearing jeans and a T-shirt and comments that all women are “just like” his wife and just want to have babies and depend on men for money. She leaves for a job at Uber. 

She hopes that “this job at Uber could end up being more than just a job,” that it could finally be “the beginning of a real career in engineering.” Yet on her first day there, her manager, Jake, regales her with stories of his sex life and bluntly propositions her. “I started to feel sick to my stomach when I realized what was going on,” she writes. “I’d work so hard—for what? To be sexually harassed by my new manager on my first day on his team?” Every time she or her female co-workers complain to H.R., they are told the same thing: The offender is a “high performer,” it is his “first offense” (it’s not), and they don’t want to ruin his career. Instead, the punishment is meted out on the women themselves. Fowler is reassigned to a new team, and H.R. tries to convince her she’s the real problem. Her male manager gives her low performance reviews to keep her from advancing to another team.  

Eventually, she writes a resignation letter and leaves. Four months later, she drafts her now-famous blog post, an abbreviated overview of the experiences at Uber that she expands on in her book: sexual harassment on her very first day, being blocked from transferring to other teams, and even a petty incident in which women were told they couldn’t get team jackets because it was too expensive to order their size. Beyond the specific gender discrimination, she describes a culture of chaos and abuse, where employees worked in fear of being constantly shouted at and belittled, and managers went to war with each other to curry favor with the higher-ups.

Fowler’s blog post was an individual response to a systemic problem. She felt a deep moral responsibility to go public—after co-workers had committed or contemplated suicide, she felt that if she didn’t write it she would “have blood on my hands.” Yet she fails to see that the forces that kept sending her life careening in a new direction are structural. They mean not that she wasn’t given a fair shot at meritocracy, but that we don’t live in one. This fact is particularly stark for women: 40 percent of women say they’ve experienced harassment at work, and the vast majority of those women end up changing jobs within two years. Sexual harassment creates a fork in women’s career paths—or several—thrusting them into a different job or even profession to find safe harbor. If anything can debunk the myth that everyone is given an equal shot at getting ahead, it’s this often-invisible barricade erected in front of millions of women. 

Meanwhile, one kind of abuse is nearly always tied up with another. Women who are sexually harassed are also often discriminated against in other ways. Fowler never quite connects the bullying behavior of her bosses who don’t engage in outright sexual harassment with a culture that demeans and undervalues all workers. “The abuse that I endured from my managers grew worse with every passing day. I dreaded going into work,” she writes. She developed anxiety and PTSD from the experience and started having panic attacks. “I felt lost, alone, and terribly afraid.”

A powerful antidote to both the isolation that Fowler felt and the abusive behavior she experienced would have been collective action. She and her co-workers do get together to share experiences and strategize. “Sometimes, my friends and I would go into an empty conference room, sit across from each other at the table, and discuss the things our managers were saying to us,” she recounts. But the action they take together is to appeal to the power structures of H.R. and hope that the authorities do the right thing. Many of them end up pushed out of the company afterward. Never do they discuss withholding their labor or forming a union.

Through all of her battles, Fowler kept believing in the power of personal achievement. “My only option seemed to be to … work hard enough that my contributions could not be denied, and to hope that things would get better,” she thinks just after her first report to H.R. blows up in her face. She eventually realizes that nothing will get better without action. But she can’t shake that deep belief in equal opportunity and personal responsibility. She wants Uber to “stop breaking the law” and to fix itself; she thinks it is “broken, unable to do the right thing.” But that assumes that it wasn’t operating exactly as intended in a patriarchal society that values men’s achievements over women’s humanity. It assumes that our current structures are set up to allow anyone the same chance to get ahead, if only they were applied correctly.

Speaking out, as Fowler decided to do, is absolutely a starting place for changing these structures. Her blog post emboldened other women in technology to speak up publicly about harassment and mistreatment, especially after they saw that her allegations were given so much attention and gravity. But it’s a crumb of action. Many women are still silenced, either by formalities like nondisclosure agreements or a lack of power in their workplaces. Uber has not fundamentally changed. Travis Kalanick, the founder who was pushed out in the wake of her blog post, has since started other business ventures that have plenty of investment. Sexual harassment is a daily occurrence, inside tech and elsewhere.

Without something more—widespread, collective action that leads to systemic change, not just for women in white-collar workplaces like Fowler’s or Carlson’s, but for women all across the economy—these structures will remain, if weakened and deteriorated, standing. Individual women writing blog posts and memoirs can help draw attention to them. But they can’t take those structures down on their own.