Book Review

Silicon Valley's Embedded Sexism

February 27, 2020

Lima street art "Whistleblower: My Journey to Silicon Valley and Fight for Justice at Uber"
By Susan Fowler
Viking, 272 pages

Susan Fowler's "Whistleblower" should be required reading for any Silicon Valley start-up founder, or any company exec for that matter. The sexism/misogyny Fowler experienced at Uber and elsewhere derailed her career, multiple times. But it also damaged these organizations as well, in terms of lost talent (and, later on, public goodwill).

Fowler came to national attention in early 2017 for her blog post describing the rampant sexism she experienced working as a software engineer at the rapidly-growing car ride service Uber. Her confessional provided a significant marker for the then-emerging 'Me Too' movement, which sought to surface the sexual harassment that was pervasive everywhere -- including the IT field -- but is still rarely spoken about. The post also portended the growing backlash of Silicon Valley's move-fast-break-things ethos, of which Uber is now highlighted as a chief culprit.

On her first full working day at the job at Uber, Fowler was propositioned, via chat, by her direct supervisor, "Jake." She had worked at other start-ups before coming to Uber, and had experienced sexism firsthand, with men telling her point blank women could never be effective engineers, and made decisions that defined her career based on these assumptions. Uber, however, had internalized this disregard to a downright creepy level, where bosses could openly prey on junior employees while HR turned a blind eye.

In Fowler's case, Uber HR had dismissed her complaint with the excuse that it was Jake's first offense, and, anyway, he was such a valuable contributor to the company. Fowler later found out this was not Jake's first infraction, nor the first time it was reported to HR. He did not get punished, but, by her retelling, she was reassigned to another department and was retaliatorily gaslit in subsequent performance reviews. Even the most cynical reader must shake their head and utter 'WTF?'

Turns out, it was not simply a case of some the clueless keyboard Casanova operating under the radar, but a symptom of the overall toxic Uber culture.

Uber "was a company driven by aggression, hellbent on destroying the competition no matter the cost, where it felt like people came into work to tear down, not to build up," Fowler wrote. "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."

If anything, the memoir makes the case against Uber even more damning, by going over the rough road that Fowler travelled to get to Silicon Valley in the first place. It certainly will dissuade readers from any notions that Fowler expected an elevated level of privilege at her job. We learn that Fowler, one of seven children, grew up dirt poor and home schooled. Her father, caught with the spirit as a young man, worked as an evangelical preacher in a small remote Arizona town. The family were outsiders -- even getting into state school was an incredible undertaking for her -- but it was necessary given the lack of opportunities otherwise available. "After all, what paths in life were open to a poor white-trash woman in a rural town without any formal education?" she wrote.

Perhaps it was this outsider perspective that lent her the ability to sharply recognize the injustice of misogyny (of which sexual harrassment is a manifestation), as well as the guts -- and/or cultural guilelessness -- to call it out, even at her own peril. It was her fierce belief that she would succeed by her intelligence alone that set up her for the confrontation with our outdated social norms. That she was a natural writer, thanks to years of journaling, allowed her to articulate the mechanics of this submerged injustice.

Judging from her career trajectory, Fowler appears to be preternaturally intelligent. Software engineering, in fact, was but a fallback option for her. Her original passion, after playing the violin, was astrophysics, and she rocked a double major of philosophy and physics at University of Pennsylvania, on her way to a PhD track. Trying to help another (male) student who threatened to kill himself, she ended up somehow responsible for his well-being, the school's faculty not wanting to take a potential responsibility for another student suicide. This is what led to her downfall there, by her telling.

After months of trying to help this man, to the growing the expense of her own studies, he caught feelings for her, and turned against her when she did not reciprocate, involving the school in the process. In short, she was then asked, by the university, not to take the same classes as he did, classes she needed to graduate. Her protests and appeals only ended up alienating the faculty in the physics department, in effect thwarting her PhD ambitions.

"Many of the same people who used to love to talk to me about physics now avoided me. The same people used to open their doors to me now kept them shut and ignored me. They were afraid of me. They were afraid of the whole situation," she wrote.

Lima street art

If anything, this run-in with UPenn is even more damning than Uber, with the school in effect asking her to set aside her own ambitions for the benefit of someone else, a male. It seems clear that no one at UPenn consciously made that decision, but at the same time she shows how the social mechanics there pretty much forced it upon her. In a way, it is a harsher example than Uber of our submerged, systematic misogyny.

If there is a fault to this engaging book it is that it suffers from a certain face blindness to the perpetrators. The actual interactions with Jake, the Uber HR department, and the University of Pennsylvania student are retold in a legally factual way. But I would have liked to hear more about the larger context leading up to those exchanges.

This is not to try to exonerate these people in any sort of way, but just to understand what these fools were thinking. What were the conversations, even casual ones, that led up to Jake to propositioning Fowler, in a work chat? Was he simply oblivious to professional behavior, or actively disregarding it for his own love life? And how valuable was Jake to Uber, really? Was the HR department trying to protect him, specifically, or just Uber's own (extremely toxic) bro culture? Uber's considerable issues are well-defined here, but I would have liked to read about how they manifested themselves individually, even in a seemingly innocuous ways? And what is up with the physics faculty of University of Pennsylvania, members of an academic institution whose passiveness derailed a scientific career?

True, it is not responsibility of a victim to sketch out the personality foibles of their aggressors, especially when such details could be used as a wedge to 'blame the victim' -- to raise questions of culpability. But they could also provide some details to better point Silicon Valley, and everyone else, to the work we all still need to do.