It was the memo heard ‘round the world, a shot at the heart of Silicon Valley. When Susan Fowler published a 3,000-word essay on her website in February 2017 about her time at Uber and why she left, she felt it was the right thing to do. In her opener, she wrote, “It’s a strange, fascinating, and slightly horrifying story that deserves to be told while it is still fresh in my mind.” The piece, entitled “Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year at Uber,” details the sexual harassment she experienced working in Uber’s headquarters.
The post is a very matter-of-fact yet disturbing chronicle about being propositioned by her boss, repeatedly ignored by HR, blocked for a transfer, and enduring other humiliating and degrading behavior. The former site-reliability engineer wrote that the company was over 25 percent women when she started. By the time she tried to transfer to another engineering organization, the number had dropped down to less than six percent.
Fowler’s post caused Uber to conduct an internal investigation, which resulted in the firing of 20 employees (Let’s hope her boss was one of them). Other female employees came forward with similar stories. Eventually, founder Travis Kalanick stepped down as CEO after major Uber investors requested a change in leadership due to all the chaos surrounding the company.
Uber wasn’t the only company dealing with fallout; other companies across the industry were called to task. In the burgeoning #metoo movement, Fowler was the one to first shed a spotlight on Silicon Valley’s bro culture. If the word itself isn’t descriptive enough, bro culture refers to frat boy or junior high type of behavior that usually involves the hypersexualization of women. If you look up bro culture on Urban Dictionary, the example sentence is “Silicon Valley has a lot of bro culture.” There’s actually a book on the topic (released in February 2018), called Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley by Emily Chang.
In the hopes of affecting change, Fowler is going the legal route. As a condition of employment at Uber, she had to sign a class action waiver. In other words, she signed away her constitutional right to sue. She thinks Silicon Valley needs to get rid of forced arbitration (which severely limits options for resolving disputes), so she’s taken this to the Supreme Court. The decision should be coming soon.
Fowler isn’t shy about issuing public challenges to companies like Google to waive forced arbitration agreements. She has a pinned tweet dated March 22, 2018 that says, “If you want real, lasting change in the industry, the only way you are ever going to get it is by holding companies accountable for covering up illegal treatment of their employees.”
She persisted. As one of the Silence Breakers, she was named TIME’s Person of the Year, and was also named Person of the Year in 2017 by the Financial Times. Since the scandal broke, she’s had her first child, sold her memoir to Viking, and her year-long stint at Uber is being turned into a movie with the script being written by the screenwriter of Hidden Figures. She’s currently working as the editor-in-chief of Increment, which has been dubbed “The New Yorker of Silicon Valley.”
In October 2017, Fowler tweeted, “To every woman wondering if she should come forward and share her story: the world is listening, the world is ready. You deserve justice… I did it. I came forward and risked everything and shared my story. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done, but god it was worth it.”