Silicon Valley’s Workplace Problem

Company Culture

Susan Fowler’s memoir of Silicon Valley.


In Silicon Valley, every tech titan has a mythology. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is the boy prince turned despot. Apple’s Steve Jobs is a Herculean idol. And Theranos’s Elizabeth Holmes is an empress with no clothes. Depending on who you ask, the tech titans are selfish, evil, reckless, innovative, or touched by genius—anything, that is, but banal. Even among their detractors (perhaps especially for them), there is a natural affinity for this type of epical narrative.

Susan Fowler, the woman who came forward to expose sexual harassment at Uber, is no exception. In 2017, a 25-year-old Fowler published a blog post detailing how, over her yearlong stint at the company, the number of women working there dropped from 25 percent to less than 6 percent. She described a number of distressing offenses, including being propositioned by her manager in her first few weeks on the job and subsequently being punished for it. She wrote about being blocked for a transfer by another manager, who retroactively changed her performance review because keeping a woman on his team made him “look good.” Fowler’s post quickly went viral. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick responded by saying that the incidents she described were “abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for and believes in,” but after a series of other public fuck-ups, including a video of him angrily berating an Uber driver, Kalanick was forced out as the company’s leader. While there were other reasons for his undoing, Fowler’s blog post helped spark his ouster. “‘Twas a personal essay,” The Verge observed, “that slew the dragon.”

Fowler has now published a memoir, Whistleblower, to tell her side of the story. Although it focuses on her swift passage through the tech world and her explosive move out of it, the book also chronicles her childhood years growing up in poverty in Arizona; her time at college, where she experienced harassment and a hostile administration; and the multiple jobs she took—many of them with sexist work cultures—before landing at Uber.

Whistleblower also documents the risk and harassment Fowler faced by coming forward. After she published her post, her social media accounts were hacked, and she found herself under scrutiny by private investigators, which included being tailed. (At the time, Uber denied that it was behind the investigation, but a lawyer later sent an e-mail to Fowler confirming that she was conducting a separate investigation of her for the company.) “Part of what felt so scary was the randomness of it all,” Fowler writes. “I never knew what to expect.” Yet if Whistleblower offers its readers one overarching impression, it’s of Fowler’s personal resolve. For her, this is the most important lesson of her experience: that a young woman could “take fate into her own hands and speak up against injustice, even though she was afraid to do so.” When she decided to publish that blog post, she did it not as “the victim of my story, but the hero,” because the great people in history are those “who had done things in their lives, not had things done to them.”

Exceptionalism is one of Silicon Valley’s founding principles, and a little bit of that has crept into Fowler’s book. There is no denying that she has been incredibly brave, and her life story is one of David against many, many Goliaths. But there is a danger in overstating the power that one individual has. Silicon Valley is defined by systemic ills—exploitation of the gig economy, little oversight or regulation, immense wealth and power disparities—that shape the lives of its workers, and no single heroic figure, even one with a moral fortitude like Fowler’s, will be enough to overcome such structural problems.

Susan Fowler is as interesting a person as you could imagine. She grew up poor in rural Arizona, where her father was an evangelical preacher and her mother homeschooled her and her siblings. Fowler was resourceful and clever: By the age of 10, she started picking up side jobs to help her folks with the bills, working first at a venomous spider farm (called Spider Pharm) where she fed maggots to black widows and brown recluses. She also did a stint at a store called Brand New Dead Things, where she pinned dead insects to shadow boxes, and found work as a stable hand and a violin teacher. When Fowler describes getting around her parents’ strict “no boyfriend” rules by “dating girls whose families went to church,” it is hard not to be charmed.

As an adolescent, Fowler was extremely studious, teaching herself the subjects she needed to get into college. She struggled with depression after her father died from brain cancer, but she still managed to secure a spot at Arizona State University and later transferred to the University of Pennsylvania. At Penn, she got her first glimpse of overt gender inequity: She was harassed by a fellow student in the physics department who was going through his own mental health crisis. When she turned to the university administration for aid, it did nothing, making the student and his problems Fowler’s responsibility. When she attempted to file a complaint, the dean of graduate studies rescinded her master’s degree, and her professors stopped speaking to her, destroying her hopes of getting into a PhD program. However, this appalling treatment only reinforced her determination.

Fowler’s early disappointments led her to find work in Silicon Valley, where she took a job as an engineer at a small tech start-up. After realizing she was being overworked and underpaid in comparison with her male counterparts, she quickly moved to another start-up, where she found that her manager “was openly, unabashedly sexist” as well as anti-Semitic. In a situation that likely rings familiar to many women, she discovered that the company didn’t have an HR department. Soon, salvation appeared unexpectedly; Fowler was headhunted for a job at Uber.

The fact that 25 percent of Uber’s engineers at the time were women—a high number for Silicon Valley—was a major selling point, and Fowler hoped that the company’s culture might prove more welcoming than the places she had worked for. Yet almost immediately after starting, she was propositioned by her manager. When she reported the incident, she was told by HR that while her boss had sexually harassed her, it was his first offense (which she later found out was not the case), so the company had decided not to discipline him. Instead, Fowler was offered a choice that was really no choice at all: to remain in his group and possibly receive a bad performance review from him or to switch teams within the company.

Fowler chose the latter, but it soon became clear that sexism and harassment were not confined to one particular manager at Uber, and over the course of her time there, many of her female colleagues left. When she asked a male manager what the company was doing about the problem, he replied that he was making it a point to “talk to one woman every month.” An HR representative told her, in one of her many meetings with the department, that white men were just really “good at engineering.” Indeed, the entirety of Uber’s workplace, as described by Fowler, was rife with mistreatment and verbal abuse.

Eventually the situation became untenable for her, and she left for a job as editor in chief of a new software engineering magazine published by Stripe, a payment start-up. While at the magazine, she decided to publish her blog post, which almost immediately went viral. From that point on, her life was upended. Fowler, her friends, and her relatives were all contacted by reporters and by mysterious investigators, and she had to employ private security guards to watch her house at night. She met with Eric Holder, a US attorney general under Barack Obama, who’d been hired by Uber to conduct an independent investigation into her charges; when his abridged report was released, Kalanick was forced to resign from the company. Fowler eventually moved on to become a technology opinion editor at The New York Times.

Fowler ends her memoir with an anecdote about taking a Lyft ride home when the news came over the radio that Kalanick had resigned. “Can you believe it?” she recalls her Lyft driver saying. “With the sexual harassment, and the rape, and now this? That’s why I will never drive for Uber. They couldn’t treat their fancy ‘real employees’ right; why would they treat the drivers any different?” The implication is that Lyft isn’t Uber. But both are quite similar. When it comes to how they treat their drivers, the two companies are built on the same model of exploitation: classifying them as independent contractors so they don’t receive the benefits of full-time employees. This type of misclassification makes working conditions less safe, with sexual harassment and assault on the job becoming persistent problems for Uber and Lyft drivers alike.

This points to something that gets lost in a narrative that focuses primarily on individuals instead of systems. Silicon Valley has long thrived on the view that it consists of extraordinary people, geniuses who put in 80-hour weeks to build a cutting-edge industry that is changing the world. But far from being the exception, Silicon Valley exploits its workers just like any other industry. In 2018 more than 20,000 Google workers walked out on their jobs for a few hours to protest, among other issues, the way the company paid off top executives accused of sexual harassment. As one labor expert told The New York Times, “The myth of Silicon Valley is that all the power you need is embodied in you as an individual—if you want more money, go somewhere else. What [the employees] were saying here was that all the economic power they had as individuals wasn’t enough.” The walkout was a way to start combating tech ideology, putting the power of the collective above that of the individual.

There is no doubt that Uber was a highly toxic environment and that Fowler’s actions while there and afterward reveal an extraordinary tenacity of character. As she points out, after she spoke up, it turned out that seemingly everyone knew about the conditions at Uber—employees, bosses, investors—yet no one did anything to change them. And it’s also true that her account is a memoir, meaning that she is writing about her experiences and convictions; her book isn’t meant to wrestle with the bigger, systemic questions about technology and capitalism. But as readers, we are left with only a partial view of the issues afflicting Silicon Valley and, in fact, most workplaces. The realization that Fowler took away from Uber was that she had very little power there, so she made up her mind to “never again accept a job in which I was a low-level employee, in which I was powerless.” She adds that what she likes about Stripe is that power seemingly never enters into anyone’s mind there the way it did at Uber.

While Uber has been particularly egregious in its flouting of employment laws, functionally, there is very little difference between it and many other companies in America. The problem wasn’t that Fowler was a low-level employee but rather that low-level employees working in such companies are almost always powerless. And just because no one talks about power doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. In many workplaces, obscuring power differentials is management’s favorite tool to keep those who don’t have it from agitating for it. How many times during a union drive have workers heard that their company is actually just one big family?

Reading Fowler’s account, I kept being reminded of the organizing line “Positions, not people.” If only all people could be as exceptional as her—but in a more just world, they wouldn’t have to be. What her story points to is less the need for individuals to speak up heroically than for the workers to band together as a collective to change the very structures and organization of their workplaces. What they need are unions, seats on the board, and worker-owned companies. At any moment, someone like Kalanick could become the new boss at any of the “good” companies in Silicon Valley—and just as Uber became an exemplar of horrible working conditions, so could any other workplace. No matter the determination of any one particular person, the people in charge are still more likely than not to be able to subject their workers to any sort of mistreatment and get away with it. While many would like to paint Uber as uniquely bad, the more damning truth is that it’s perfectly banal.

As Anna Wiener, the author of Uncanny Valley, another Silicon Valley memoir published this year, said in a recent interview when asked why she chose not to identify the companies and people that appear in her book:

The companies I worked for had specific products and things specific to the work culture, like the “remote-first” culture, but my experiences there were sort of interchangeable. There were a lot of people who worked at [other] companies and they kind of had very similar emotional dynamics, political dynamics, power dynamics in the office. I was trying to gesture to that, that this is more of a structural or systemic situation rather than that of a specific company.

This decision feels like a small but elegant shift in the way we’re usually made to think about tech companies—a reframing that flattens their own sense of singularity. Wiener shifts from the personal to the political in a way that neatly dismantles the industry’s pervasive meritocratic mythology. Doing so is a first step toward understanding that the solutions for the industry’s ills are collective, not individual. After all, there is perhaps no crueler fate for a Silicon Valley golden boy than obscurity.

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy