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In New Book, Uber Whistleblower Takes On Silicon Valley


In the summer of 2017, Travis Kalanick resigned as CEO of Uber under a cloud of accusations at the company of sexual harassment and a toxic work culture. That shakeup started with a single blog post, and it was written by Susan Fowler. She was a software engineer at the company. And for her, the harassment began on the first day, when a manager began talking openly about sex over a company chat.

SUSAN FOWLER: (Reading) It was clear that he was trying to get me to have sex with him. And it was so clearly out of line that I immediately took screenshots of these chat messages and reported him to HR.

GREENE: That is Fowler reading from that blog post that she wrote in early 2017, two months after leaving Uber. Now she has written a book detailing her life leading up to that moment. It is called "Whistleblower." She writes about growing up in rural Arizona, a life that she says was filled with joy and fun but also poverty.

FOWLER: As I grew up, I realized that, you know - oh, wow, this isn't the way that most people live. Like, most people aren't wondering, like, oh, am I going to eat potatoes for, like, the 15th time this week?

GREENE: Overcoming that hardship, Fowler earned scholarships to attend college. At the University of Pennsylvania, she studied philosophy and physics with a goal of earning a Ph.D. She writes that when a fellow student in her lab was having mental health issues, she tried to get him help. But things took a turn, and she said officials told her she was responsible for his well-being and didn't want to intervene. Fowler said her dreams of becoming a physicist were derailed because of the situation. She wishes that she had stood up for herself then, like she did a few years later.

FOWLER: Penn was where I learned how to document what was going on. It was where I learned how to educate myself about my legal rights. Nobody teaches us, you know, here's how you stand up for yourself when you are the victim of mistreatment. And I learned that lesson, and I took it with me, you know, to Uber.

GREENE: In her book, Susan Fowler describes a toxic company culture at Uber - misogyny, bullying, harassment as well as often surreal encounters with an HR department that refused to take action. I asked her what she believes pushed the company in that direction.

FOWLER: From my experience, one thing that I noticed about the company was that they had this culture of we are the disruptors, we are the rule-breakers. And that applied to, you know, disrupting taxi regulations and transit rules. And it also applied to the way that people were treated within the company. And there were so many times when I would be in meetings and I would be yelled at, I was berated. It was a very aggressive, very abusive experience. And I think that many of the other employees, at least the ones that I worked with and was very close with, they seemed to be having very similar experiences. And it wasn't just sexual harassment. There were many other issues that were going on there as well.

GREENE: So you left Uber at the end of 2016 and then you publish your blog post two months later. Can you take me to that moment, that decision when you hit publish?

FOWLER: It was a moment that I knew was coming for so long because before I left Uber, I realized that I was going to say something. You know, I knew from my experience at Penn that I would need to speak up. And I felt this very strong moral responsibility to do so. But I was so afraid of the consequences, of what might happen that I just kept putting it off. I remember so clearly waking up some mornings and being like - I'm not going to write it today, but I promise I'll write it tomorrow. I kept telling myself this until finally I realized I couldn't keep telling myself that anymore. Like, I had to share what had happened. And the only way that I could really do that was to let go of the consequences because the possible consequences were so scary that I felt like if I thought about those or if I used the possibility of these things to make the decision, then I wasn't actually going to do the right thing.

GREENE: You mean the harassment, the backlash - I mean, the...


GREENE: ...What you might suffer by doing this?

FOWLER: Exactly. So I just had to kind of let each of those things go and say, I know what is the right thing to do. And the right thing to do is to tell the truth, to speak up and to share my story. And so that's what I did.

GREENE: I mean, in the aftermath of of your blog post, I mean, there've been multiple investigations into Uber. The CEO, Travis Kalanick, was ousted, 20 other people fired. Did that all surprise you?

FOWLER: I didn't expect much, if anything, to come of my blog post. You know, I really expected that the most that would ever come from it was, you know, someone could finally sue them. And so...

GREENE: You thought you were going to be kind of opening the door for the process to start, that it wouldn't...

FOWLER: I did. But that was the best case. I figured, like, the most likely thing was that nobody would care because nobody cared when I was at the company. And so when things started happening, I was very surprised. I was shocked.

GREENE: So your blog post clearly had this enormous impact on a company, on the culture in the industry. And now you've gotten a book deal. You've documented much more than what you saw at Uber. I mean, you've documented your life for all of us to see. Why was it important to go beyond the blog post and tell your life story to us?

FOWLER: So the first reason was that I really wanted to encourage other people to speak up - so - and especially, you know, like, seeing and reading about someone who's been in these situations and seeing their thought process. And I tried to include as much of my own thinking and how I made these decisions and the things I wish I had done and the things that I was glad that I did so that readers who might be experiencing similar things can look at this and it will help them, you know, think about how they're going to make their own decisions. This book is for them. Like, this is answering their questions and kind of being the book that I wish that I had when I was going through these different situations.

And then the second part is that I really wanted to tell my whole story. You know, the blog post was around 3,000 words. It was a snapshot of a series of events at a particular moment in time about a company. But it didn't really tell my whole story. You know, it didn't tell why I had learned the things that I did, why I knew how to write the blog post, why I spoke up. And those things were very important to me because I wanted to be - and I still want to be, you know - more than just the woman who wrote the blog post about Uber. And so I want to give context, you know, to my whole life.

GREENE: Susan, thank you so much.

FOWLER: Thank you so much.

GREENE: That was Susan Fowler. She's the author of "Whistleblower." And if you are experiencing sexual harassment or mistreatment in the workplace, you can contact a lawyer at the National Employment Lawyers Association as well as file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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