Skip to main content

To expose sexism at Uber, Susan Fowler blew up her life

The risks and rewards of blowing the whistle at Uber

Share this story

If you buy something from a Verge link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Susan Fowler wrote her last real line of code at Uber. It’s not that she hasn’t tried since she left the company in 2016; there was a Coursera course she’d tried to take, just to learn something new. It’s just that she got so anxious she couldn’t even finish a simple program.

Do you miss it? Coding?

“I don’t miss it because I associate it with so many of my negative experiences,” Fowler says. She read Gretchen Carlson’s book, Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back, and one thing stuck out to her: women who speak up about harassment in a profession never work in that profession again.

In her case, it’s also true. Fowler is no longer a software engineer. 

“I do live my life a lot differently now. I’m always looking over my shoulder.”

We are sitting at an amusingly named diner-type location in the Bay Area. I will not be more specific, as Fowler has been stalked by private detectives and others in the aftermath of her extremely viral blog post about sexual harassment at Uber. In fact, she would only meet me if I promised not to reveal where.

“I do live my life a lot differently now,” she says. “I’m always looking over my shoulder.”

It is two weeks before her memoir, Whistleblower, will go on sale. In addition to her regular jitters, Fowler now has pre-publication jitters. Though you wouldn’t know it to look at her. She sits very still, with excellent posture, in a black leather jacket, a gray boatneck top, and jeans. She doesn’t appear to be wearing makeup; her hair looks like it’s air-dried. She looks, in other words, like an ordinary upper-middle-class woman in her late 20s who happens to be on her lunch break. She is, in fact, on her lunch break.

You know who this ordinary woman is because she did something extraordinary. In February 2017, Fowler wrote a 2,900-word blog post about the sexism she encountered while working at Uber. When she published it to her personal site, she wasn’t expecting the headlines it generated half an hour later. She never expected that it would lead to Travis Kalanick, the company’s brash CEO and founder, being forced out of his job. 

Susan Fowler’s memoir ‘Whistleblower: My Journey to Silicon Valley and Fight for Justice at Uber’
Susan Fowler’s memoir ‘Whistleblower: My Journey to Silicon Valley and Fight for Justice at Uber’

She didn’t just detail sexual harassment — though, her first day, she was fending off a brazen sexual advance from her direct supervisor. In Whistleblower, Fowler writes that she started to feel sick to her stomach when she realized what was happening. But it was unmistakable. “I felt a wave of relief wash over me when I remembered that I worked at a large company, one with a sizable human resources department,” she writes. 

If you’re one of the 6 million people who read Fowler’s blog post in the weeks after it was published, you already know how this goes: Fowler was told her boss was a “high performer.” And besides, this was his first offense. It wasn’t until later, when Fowler befriended other female engineers, that she discovered she’d been lied to. Several other women had run-ins with the same man, and all had been told by HR that it was his first offense. “It’s the Uber playbook,” she says. “I always thought, There’s got to be a script, somewhere, right?

She encountered that over and over, in a Kafkaesque battle with Uber’s human resources department. To read these incidents one by one is to marvel at Fowler’s persistence. At one point, she wondered if it was possible to report HR to HR. She wanted the system to work. She brought her complaints to Thuan Pham, who was — and still is — Uber’s chief technology officer. Pham did nothing, Fowler writes. In fact, he did nothing on several occasions when women, including Fowler, complained about the sexist environment.

“I wasn’t used to people in authority not standing up for me.”

It’s hard not to feel, reading her account at book length, that she kept going because she was convinced someone, somewhere, cared about what was happening to her. Having been homeschooled for most of her childhood in Arizona, the main authority figures Fowler encountered growing up were her parents. “I wasn’t used to people in authority not standing up for me,” she tells me, “and not keeping their word.” 

Sexual harassment is often the tip of the iceberg for other kinds of labor violations and misconduct, Fowler says. The cultural problems within Uber started at the top: Kalanick and Pham liked watching their employees battle for status. Mike Isaac’s Super Pumped, a book about Uber, details the ways that rulebreaking and lawbreaking were the norm at the startup under Kalanick. 

Uber wore Fowler down. It wasn’t the first time she’d had run-ins with sexual harassment. That started much earlier when she was a student at the University of Pennsylvania and couldn’t get the administration to take her seriously about a classmate who was threatening to kill himself if she didn’t return his affections. 

“I learned more about how to deal with sexual harassment or mistreatment at Penn than I learned about physics or philosophy.”

When she brought her problems to the school, she was given the runaround by the other student’s adviser, the chair of the physics department, and Penn’s administration staff. Fowler also believes that a graduate degree in philosophy was denied her as a result. This derailed her initial career interest, becoming a physicist, as well as her backup career interest, becoming a philosophy professor. She’d gone into engineering after graduation because she knew how to code. She’d never really meant to be a software engineer in the first place. But that initial encounter was where Fowler learned lessons she’d later use at Uber: how to document mistreatment. “I always kind of joke to myself that I learned more about how to deal with sexual harassment or mistreatment at Penn than I learned about physics or philosophy,” she tells me. 

Fowler’s first two jobs in the tech industry were at smaller companies that had no HR departments to do battle with. At her first job, at financial data company Plaid, she discovered that her male colleagues, who worked fewer hours than her, still made $50,000 more than she did. At her next job, PubNub, which made infrastructure for notifications, she had a boss who told her that any man she dated would secretly also have sex with prostitutes and that all women were the same and just wanted to leech money off men. When he told her that PubNub had installed hardware that would allow the company to read employees’ texts and that he was looking forward to reading the intimate texts she might send to someone she was dating, she took an interview with Uber. Perhaps the solution was to work at a place big enough to have a real HR department.

“I was turning into a terrified, defensive, panicked person.”

About six months in, Uber’s internal culture began to seriously affect Fowler’s well-being. She wasn’t sleeping much. She was anxious, getting into fights with her boyfriend and mother. She started having panic attacks. “I was so used to being reprimanded in my meetings at work that I was turning into a terrified, defensive, panicked person,” she writes. She wasn’t alone, either; the engineers who’d been employed by Uber the longest “all seemed to have suicidal thoughts.” Fowler discovered she was becoming someone she didn’t like. And so she left Uber — and engineering altogether. 

Whistleblowers are an oddity. The decision to make wrongdoing public is, in some ways, about sacrificing one’s loyalty — to an institution, to an employer, to individuals — for the sake of one’s sense of fairness. People who are willing to do this are rare, not least because there are serious consequences for it. By taking action, certain parts of the whistleblower’s social identity are obliterated. 

Fowler told me, in an email after we met, that she’s heard herself identified as “‘a #MeToo’ girl.” She’s been told that the only thing anyone is interested in hearing about from her is sexual harassment. To some degree, her memoir is about staking out other kinds of identity: we see her as a member of her family and falling in love with her husband. Indeed, Fowler’s now-infamous experiences at Uber don’t begin until midway through the book, a kind of structural rebellion against the collapse of her identity.

“Based on everything I knew, sharing my story with the world would likely ruin my life.”

Fowler risked her own status, her livelihood, her safety, and her own privacy. This is a tremendous assumption of danger to make sure the truth is told publicly. “Based on everything I knew, sharing my story with the world would likely ruin my life,” Fowler writes in her book.

She spent days in a state of profound anxiety, knowing that not saying anything would be wrong but unable to compose the post. “I remember so many days when it would be sitting there, and it would be weighing on me. And I would say, ‘Okay, I’m not going to write it today. I’m going to write it tomorrow,’” Fowler says. “And I’d tell myself this. Just one more day.”

The book that pushed her into the blog post was Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, about surviving Nazi concentration camps. “I’m reading this, and I’m thinking, Would I actually be a good person if I was in that situation?” she says. “When we’re in these difficult situations, it’s our character that shows. I had just gone through this, and how dare I walk away and wash my hands of that whole situation.”

“How dare I walk away and wash my hands of that whole situation.”

She sat down to compose and was very careful not to betray any emotion; she was a woman, after all, and her emotions could be used to discredit her. No names, only formal titles. And not a single sentence could be written without evidence. Its publication was months before the #MeToo movement when powerful men were accused of sexual misconduct, and Fowler’s work is different. Most #MeToo stories involved multiple women whose accounts were similar enough for a reporter to establish a pattern. And nearly all #MeToo stories focused closely on specific men, not the entirety of the system that protected them.

Fowler, on the other hand, presented Uber. Not one sexist manager. Not two. But all of them — and the HR system that shielded them. When Fowler wrote it, she didn’t imagine she would change much. She thought, maybe, someone else would be able to use it in a lawsuit. “I still have no idea what happened,” she says.

Uber was already struggling with a reputation that it was unsafe for female passengers; several lawsuits had been filed, and there had already been several rounds of bad press. Kalanick had already done an interview with GQ in 2014 where he said he had women on demand; “We call that Boob-er.” By the time Fowler wrote her post, the misogyny wasn’t a secret. Within 30 minutes, reporters had already picked up the post. It confirmed that Uber’s problems with women were so bad as to be illegal. Fowler’s phone was rendered useless under the weight of the incoming text messages, phone calls, and messages on social media. (Her Gmail and Twitter apps failed first.)

“You don’t want your name to be associated with sexual harassment.”

Fowler heard from the CEO of Stripe, her employer at the time, as well as her direct manager who commended her bravery. The head of communications at Fowler’s new employer was less supportive: “You don’t want your name to be associated with sexual harassment,” she told Fowler.

To try to stop the bleeding, Kalanick opened an investigation into Uber’s culture, but it was already too late. Days after Fowler’s blog post, Mike Isaac published an investigation in The New York Times detailing a “Hobbesian” culture, essentially corroborating Fowler’s complaints about a toxic environment. In March 2017, just a month after Fowler’s blog post, Isaac published a story about “Project Greyball,” which had been created specifically to circumvent authorities that might limit the company.

Fowler’s book opens with her sitting down with former US attorney general Eric Holder, one of the principals of the investigation. But according to Whistleblower, it was not the only investigation that was ongoing at Uber. There was one by Holder, another by law firm Perkins Coie, and a third by Uber’s internal lawyers, which Fowler writes was meant to “destroy evidence and scare and intimidate employees.” 

When Fowler was younger, she had the idea that if she did the right thing, everything would work out

When Fowler was younger, she had the idea — maybe, she says, she got it from the movies — that if she did the right thing, everything would work out. Everything would fall into place; the wrongs would be righted. That is not what happened after the blog post. What happened was that someone also began investigating Fowler.

Besides reporters, someone began contacting friends and family members of Fowler’s, asking for personal information. One woman called Fowler, claiming to be a PI working on a case against Uber; when Fowler got off the phone, she discovered the firm the woman worked for pretty much exclusively helped companies discredit people who’d been sexually harassed or assaulted. Someone was trying to hack Fowler’s social media accounts — and, in the case of her Facebook account, did so successfully several times. Her sister’s Facebook account was also compromised.

And there were fewer people Fowler felt she could talk to about this because her conversations, increasingly, were being leaked to reporters. Plus, someone was engaging in a smear campaign. A reporter contacted Fowler saying a source had told them that she had been paid off by Lyft. (This is not true.) When that rumor didn’t stick, other noxious ones circulated: she’d lied about being sexually harassed; Uber execs had orgies and women, including Fowler, joined them; Fowler was such a terrible writer that her husband had written the post for her.

“There are times I wish I had not done it, because of how terrible it was.”

Then someone started following her. “I was followed and stalked by private investigators up until the writing of this book,” she writes. A former Uber employee, Morgan Richardson, claimed a private investigator for the company had illegally broken into her home, and Fowler was afraid that might happen to her, too. Fowler’s old friends from Uber faded out of her life. One person said that the company had found out she was talking to Fowler, despite the use of encrypted messaging that self-destructed, and that she was afraid of retaliation.

“There are times I wish I had not done it because of how terrible it was,” Fowler says. “But the thing I keep telling myself is that you do the right thing no matter what. Like, yes, it sucks. Yes, it’s terrible. But would I go back and do it again? Absolutely.”

Ultimately, an abridged version of the Holder investigation was released. (The full version has never been made available.) The first recommendation at the top of the list was “Review and Reallocate the Responsibilities of Travis Kalanick.” A day after the investigation’s recommendations were released, Kalanick went on indefinite leave; seven days later, he resigned. 

Much has been made of Kalanick’s determination, how hard he drove himself and others, and how forceful he was. In talking to Fowler, I didn’t get the sense that she was a particularly conflict-prone person. Rather, she went out of her way to make me feel comfortable and put me at ease. But throughout the book, several phrases recur: “I was determined,” “I decided,” “I made up my mind.” It is easier to recognize determination in someone like Kalanick. But ultimately, he was ejected from his own company by someone as strong-willed as he was. It is possible to imagine a world in which Fowler would have been an ideal Uber employee. 

The harassment did eventually tail off, though Fowler appears to be steeling herself for it to start up again. Fowler asked Dara Khosrowshahi, Kalanick’s replacement as CEO, if there were still investigators following her; he said he’d “killed all that crap.” (“Uber’s use of private investigators, he said, was ‘just insane,’” Fowler writes of her conversation with Khosrowshahi. “It was ‘unreal what was going on.’”)

“The way that people treat their employees is also how they view the rest of the world.”

When I ask if there have been real changes to Silicon Valley’s larger culture since her blog post and the #MeToo revelations that followed, she is quiet for a moment, choosing her words. Not all companies are Uber, she tells me. Uber is the obvious bad example of what happens when certain things that are entrenched in Silicon Valley culture go all the way. What drove it to be so harmful was an extreme version of the disruptor mentality — a total lack of accountability and a sense that the laws simply didn’t apply. “I think that attitude has changed a little bit [in Silicon Valley],” she says. “A big part of it is the renewed scrutiny that has come toward the technology companies.”

She hopes it keeps getting better, particularly as journalists do their best to shine a light on these companies, their values, and how they treat their employees. “If I learned anything from working at Uber, it’s that the way that people treat their employees is also how they view the rest of the world,” she says. At Uber, in particular, the contempt with which the employees were treated mirrored the contempt with which the customers were treated.

But Fowler is careful to say that she no longer works in tech. Her view is different now. I ask if Silicon Valley needs a reckoning, if there’s something the technology industry needs to do to come to terms with what it actually is. “I haven’t really thought about that,” Fowler says. Because she doesn’t work in tech anymore, it’s hard for her to gauge how things still need to change. Her last job as an engineer was at Uber, and she left in 2016. Four years is a long time in the tech world, after all. 

Don’t feel too bad for Fowler. She feels lucky. Though she’s been prevented by the institutional forces that protect sexual harassers from her first choice of career (physics), her second choice (philosophy), and her third choice (software engineering), she likes journalism and speaks glowingly of her job as an editor at The New York Times. “I’m in the right place,” she says. “I’m exactly where I need to be right now.” She’s working on a big project. It is about privacy.