Feb 18, 2020 - Economy & Business

What we're reading: "Whistleblower"

Book cover via Penguin Random House

In February 2017, Susan Fowler's "reflection on one very, very strange year at Uber" precipitated the downfall of Uber's founding CEO Travis Kalanick — and marked the point at which the entire national conversation about technology companies shifted from cheerleading to skepticism.

  • Fowler went quiet after her blog post was published, but now, three years later, she's back with a memoir, "Whistleblower," that promises to start a new conflagration of its own. This time, the system being indicted is not Uber, or even Silicon Valley more broadly, but the entire American patriarchy.

Fowler is a truly extraordinary woman. As a girl born into deeply religious poverty, she home-schooled herself through high school while, she writes, being allowed "no female friends who did not go to church, no male friends whatsoever, and certainly no boyfriends."

She fought her way into Arizona State University and then the University of Pennsylvania through the sheer force of her thirst for knowledge, but continued to encounter appalling sexism.

  • Penn treated Fowler atrociously. She encountered serious sexual harassment and discrimination and found herself the person punished — the school prevented her from receiving an MA in philosophy and a BA in physics, and dashed her dreams of getting a physics PhD.

Unable to remain in academia, Fowler went to work as a software engineer in Silicon Valley, but the sexism persisted — first at Plaid, then at PubNub, and then, famously, at Uber.

  • Fowler's first-hand account of the duplicity and dysfunction at Uber is genuinely shocking. The company would have gotten away with it, too, just as they had countless times in the past, were it not for Fowler's unique background, which made her both compelled and able to speak out.

While the media narrative is dominated by #MeToo stories of sexual assault, "Whistleblower" masterfully pulls back the camera.

  • Fowler details a world of sexual discrimination, retaliation, and a broader culture where women's careers are simply not valued as highly as men's. Her's is not a story of Bad Men; in fact, much of the sexism she encountered was at the hands of women.
  • There's no doubt that it continues, unabated, to this day.

The bottom line: Fowler's left arm is tattooed with a phrase from Ovid: "Nitimur in vetitum semper, cupimusque negata." American society did its very best to prevent her from succeeding. Her life, and this book, represents her triumph over almost inconceivable odds.

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Why it matters: Uber and other gig economy companies have faced mounting questions over how they'll help their thousands of drivers (who are not employees) given the very social nature of their work.

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Flashback: Waymo, which is owned by Alphabet, sued Uber three years ago, alleging Levandowski and the company conspired to steal its autonomous driving technology. After a year-long legal battle and a week of trial, the companies settled. Since then, Uber has admitted that a review of its tech concluded it would have to make significant changes or pay Waymo a licensing fee.

Go deeperArrowUpdated Mar 5, 2020 - Technology