FT Person of the Year: Susan Fowler
The software engineer who lifted the lid on sexual harassment at Uber and inspired women to speak out
The Big Read Susan Fowler FT Person of the Year:
Susan Fowler The software engineer who lifted the lid on sexual harassment at Uber and inspired women to speak out
Leslie Hook in San Francisco
When Susan Fowler joined Uber in late 2015, the company looked like an unstoppable juggernaut. It was expanding rapidly around the world and becoming the most valuable start-up of all time. For software engineers like Ms Fowler, there was exciting work to be done on the app that was changing transportation. Employees at San Francisco’s hottest company proudly wore their Uber sweatshirts around town. But two years later, those sweatshirts are no longer visible and Uber is in crisis.
Beset by one major setback after another, the company has become a symbol of everything that is wrong with the hard-driving tech world. In large part, that shift is due to Ms Fowler. In February she published a blog about her time at Uber that lifted the lid on a company that was out of control.
Ms Fowler described the sexual harassment she experienced, including her boss propositioning her for sex on the first day she joined his team. The human resources department turned a blind eye to her complaints, saying he was a “high performer”. When she wrote about this and other incidents, her post quickly went viral.
Ms Fowler had pulled on a thread that would lead to a great unravelling. In the process, the 26-year-old from rural Arizona who had to teach herself at the local library to get into university, found herself at the centre of three of the most important trends of the year.
Her description of the reality of working at Uber generated a crisis that has raised questions about the very viability of the company.
They also formed an early part of the growing backlash against the power and influence of the Big Tech companies.
Most of all, her intervention was one of the most important testimonies in what — as the year comes to a close — has become an avalanche of allegations about sexual harassment and assault that have brought down some of the most important men in media, entertainment and business, and which hold the potential to permanently improve the way women are treated at work.
“Women have been speaking up for many, many years, but were very rarely believed, and there were almost never any real consequences for offenders,” Ms Fowler told the FT. “This year, that completely changed.”
Protesters on the Women’s March in Washington on January 21, a day after Donald Trump’s inauguration as US president © AFP Inside of Uber, her story immediately struck a nerve. The account was so damning because it detailed the complicity of Uber’s HR department and top executives who protected the harasser. A few days after the post came out, employees wept at the company-wide meeting that was held to discuss it.
Uber’s board launched several investigations and adopted far-reaching corporate governance reforms. The company set up a hotline for harassment complaints, drawing tips that resulted in more than 20 employees being fired. Outside of Uber, the reaction was just as dramatic. Investors started to question whether Travis Kalanick, the controversial chief executive (who used to refer to the company as “Boob-er” because it helped him meet women) had created a company whose culture had become poisonous. Low morale inside Uber contributed to a series of damaging leaks, including revelations about the mishandling of a rape victim’s medical records and the existence of Greyball, a technology used to mislead regulators.
Mr Kalanick vowed to change, but by June investors demanded that he step down.
“Susan Fowler’s letter was the tipping point for us,” says one Uber investor, Freada Kapor Klein, a partner at Kapor Capital. “We had been trying to get the company to address this behind the scenes. But with Susan’s blog post, it was — that is enough, it has so crossed the line, it is time for drastic action.”
Uber could not have found a more unlikely nemesis than the petite Ms Fowler. She grew up in what she describes as poverty as one of seven children in a small rural Arizona town with just 600 people. Her father was a preacher, prison chaplain and at one stage a high school teacher. Ms Fowler never graduated from high school, instead working as a babysitter and ranch hand, and teaching herself in the local library.
Lacking a formal education but determined to go to university, she submitted a list of books she had read as part of her college application. After winning a place at Arizona State University to study philosophy, she then transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, earning a degree in physics.
In her final year at Penn, she wrote a blog titled “If Susan can learn physics, so can you,” explaining how she caught up despite having no secondary maths education. By the time she reached Uber at age 24, she was a physicist and computer scientist, and wrote her first book about software architecture while working at the company.
Rose McGowan, one of Harvey Weinstein’s most vociferous accusers, with Tarana Burke, the originator of the Me Too movement © Getty Since leaving Uber last December, Ms Fowler, who now works at the payments start-up Stripe, has kept a very low profile. She says she did not imagine the post would have such a big impact. “I expected the reaction to die down, but it never did,” she says. “It became much bigger than me, so much bigger than Uber.”
Ms Fowler is currently eight months pregnant and on bed rest, and due to health concerns agreed to a written, rather than a face-to face interview, for this piece. Ms Fowler says she felt compelled to blow the whistle because “it was the right thing to do”. The fact her background is so different from her peers in Silicon Valley may have also played a role, she adds. “When I was younger, I used to think that my unconventional upbringing was a weakness, but over the past few years I’ve learned to see it as one of my greatest strengths,” she says. “I never had a single thing handed to me, I had to fight for everything I wanted, like my education.
When I was harassed and discriminated against, I fought as hard as I could — because I hadn’t gone through all of that, I hadn’t worked so hard my entire life, just to have someone take it away from me.”
At the time Ms Fowler published her blog post, the Uber sexual harassment scandal might have seemed like an isolated incident. But the ripples travelled well beyond one company.
This year has seen an unprecedented number of women speak publicly about sexual harassment — and unprecedented consequences for their harassers.
In Silicon Valley, female entrepreneurs recalled how pitch meetings with potential investors could lead to unwanted groping or propositions. The wave of allegations prompted the firing and resignation of several prominent venture capitalists — including the chief executive of SoFi, the online lender, and Justin Caldbeck, a co-founder of Binary Capital.
Understanding the #MeToo phenomenon A few months later the tidal wave reached Hollywood. The New York Times and New Yorker revealed in October that Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein had a pattern of sexual harassment and assault that went back decades. Mr Weinstein was fired from his eponymous company and is under investigation by police in at least two countries.
Among the dozens of actresses making accusations were Gwyneth Paltrow and Rose McGowan.
Meanwhile the #MeToo campaign swept across social media, as millions of women and some men shared personal stories of sexual harassment, assault and abuse. The movement has only continued to spread. In November, American television stars including Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer were forced to resign due to revelations about harassing colleagues. In politics, Al Franken in the Senate and John Conyers and Trent Frank in the House have announced plans to retire after facing harassment allegations.
Congress introduced a bill last month that would change the way congressional employees can report harassment. “There is a kind of unmasking going on. A lot of these are people who are venerated, people who were taken very seriously,” says Robin Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley.
In the past, a sex scandal might be in the headlines for a few weeks and then disappear. “This one seems to really have legs, because new ones keep cropping up,” she says.
There are many reasons this is happening now but most explanations point, at least in part, to the presence in the White House of President Donald Trump, who was caught on record boasting about sexually assaulting women. In a 2005 recording that was released shortly before last year’s election, Mr Trump says: “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything . . . Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”
Since then, at least 16 women have come forward to accuse Mr Trump of sexual harassment.
The fact he was elected to the highest office despite those remarks has fuelled a backlash.
The day after his inauguration, millions of women across hundreds of cities took to the streets to demonstrate in the Women’s March. Social media has also played a part. Ms Fowler, who is constantly on Twitter, says social media had a “very positive role” in the movement. “It has given a voice to many, like myself, who otherwise wouldn’t have had a platform,” she says. “#MeToo is a perfect example of this . . . It made the rest of the world finally understand the true extent of inappropriate behaviour against women, and the damage it causes.”
Another reason why 2017 has been a turning point is simply that there is strength in numbers: women have been inspired by others who spoke out. “Definitely she was a role model for me,” says Cheryl Yeoh, an entrepreneur who published her own account of assault in July.
Like Ms Fowler, Ms Yeoh decided to write her story herself and publish it online, rather than approach a journalist or try to go through a lawyer. She says that watching the impact Ms Fowler had on Uber was very encouraging. “If I hadn’t seen what had happened to Uber after her post, I wouldn’t have dared to write my account,” she says. The cultural shift that has come about this year is also the result of decades of work by activists and leaders fighting for equal rights.
Ms Klein links the wave of allegations back to events like the 1991 testimony of Anita Hill, whose televised account of sexual harassment by Clarence Thomas riveted the country during his confirmation hearing for the Supreme Court, and to the founding of the “Me Too” movement a decade ago by activist Tarana Burke. “What Susan Fowler and the #MeToo movement have in common is they both stand on the shoulders of giants,” says Ms Klein.
Earlier generations of female leaders often found sexual harassment a complex issue to raise, and instead focused on areas like equal pay or reproductive rights. Women who spoke out about harassment often found themselves blamed, and their careers derailed.
Lilly Ledbetter, the equal pay advocate whose court case on wage discrimination made it to the Supreme Court and resulted in the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009, welcomes the #MeToo movement. “I wish this had happened earlier,” she says. “I’ve been so glad that this is all coming to the forefront now.”
She recalls her own experience of harassment in the early 1980s — when a manager asked that she have sex with him in order to get a high performance review. She never reported it at that time. “I let that one slide,” she says. “Things have gotten more open and people have a tendency to support each other better today,” she says. “I think women in the beginning didn’t trust each other and didn’t support each other, and now they are better at that. There are companies that are looking at their policies and changing, and being a lot more supportive,” she says.
President Barack Obama with campaigner Lily Ledbetter before signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009 © Getty
At the same time, some are concerned the movement could end up backfiring in subtle ways, or result in discrimination against women in the workplace. “The percentage of men who will be afraid to be alone with a female colleague has to be sky high right now,” wrote Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook, in a recent post. “I have already heard the rumblings of a backlash: ‘This is why you shouldn’t hire women.’ Actually, this is why you should,” she wrote.
Ms Fowler is expected to give birth to a little girl. At Stripe, she is the editor-in-chief of a quarterly magazine called Increment, which is geared towards software engineers. She is also working on a book and a movie about her experiences.
The fortunes of Uber, on the other hand, have changed more drastically than anyone could have imagined. The company that once looked invincible has seen its valuation fall from $71bn to $54bn and it has lost market share in the US. “Would Uber have changed if it weren’t for Susan’s blog post? I don’t know,” one senior executive admits privately. “Certainly her post gave us the resolve that we needed to change.”
The contrast between the plaudits for Ms Fowler and the crisis at Uber is perhaps the clearest sign of how much things have changed for women who speak up about harassment.
Yet it still comes at a cost. “The most difficult [thing] has been that being a whistleblower displaces and dwarfs all of your other career aspirations, all your accomplishments. You’re no longer the engineer, or the physicist, or the writer — you’re the whistleblower,” says Ms Fowler. Nevertheless, she says, it is “a badge of honour”.
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