Jessica M. Goldstein
THE WASHINGTON POST – I don’t remember when I learned that you’re supposed to hold your keys between your knuckles when you walk to your car at night. Every adult woman I’ve met knows this. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, who your parents are, where you went to school. We all just osmotically absorb the awareness that vigilance is compulsory and vulnerability is inevitable. I don’t know what men do when they’re not training to be parking-lot Wolverines. Maybe they just relax? Sounds like a dream.
Susan Fowler famously resigned from Uber after the “very, very strange year” she documented in a viral blog post detailing rampant sexual harassment, abuse and general lawlessness at the ride-hail behemoth. Her memoir, Whistleblower, is a methodical and earnest retelling of one woman’s effort to go to school and do her job in environments that were actively hostile to her existence and well-being.
Whistleblower comes out just a month after Anna Wiener’s memoir, Uncanny Valley. Wiener, now a New Yorker contributor, worked at a big data start-up in San Francisco during the tech-frenzied 2010s. Her book is wry, astute, delicious and occasionally brutal. Wiener takes readers through her realisation that she’s had a small part in normalising the invasive surveillance of consumers that will soon become commonplace.
Thrumming through Wiener’s narrative is the theme that dominated Fowler’s experience. “Sexism, misogyny, and objectification did not define the workplace – but they were everywhere,” Wiener writes. “Like wallpaper, like air.”
Fowler wound up at Uber because she was fleeing her “openly, unabashedly sexist” boss at PubNub, and she’d started working at PubNub because before that, at Plaid, she was pulling 14-hour days and getting paid USD50,000 less than her male co-workers. Before taking a job interview with Uber, Fowler “spent a lot of time searching online for things like ‘Uber sexual harassment’, ‘Uber discrimination,’ and ‘Uber work culture,’ determined to avoid a repeat of my past experiences.” But nothing bad came up. She later learned why: Uber employees were silenced by forced arbitration clauses. On her first day, she was propositioned by her boss.
With the practiced ease of a dancer who knows the choreography in her bones, Fowler enacted a routine that “was almost second nature to me at this point . . . take a screenshot, email it to myself, share it with someone else for safekeeping, back it up to several cloud services, print off a hard copy, repeat.”
Wiener was also familiar with this routine. “Women kept personal incident logs,” she writes. “They kept spreadsheets. They kept tabs.” They all had stories, from “the woman who had been slipped GHB by a friend of her CEO” to the woman who was “raped by a ‘10X’ engineer, then pushed out of the company after reporting to HR.”
There were popular strategies for managing sexism at work, Wiener learned. Some women “educate and course-correct.” Others “scare and shame their colleagues for unabashed sexism.” These coping mechanisms, such as they are, feel as flimsy and pathetic as keys jammed between clammy fingers.
Fowler was raised in rural Arizona in extreme poverty; at times her family went without electricity or running water. Home-schooled by religious parents, she got into tech only after her pursuits of her first two academic passions – physics and philosophy – were thwarted by institutional failures that still seem to bewilder her.
As she faced ever-escalating gendered harassment in Silicon Valley, she writes, “the thought that such treatment might follow me, no matter how high up the socioeconomic ladder I climbed, absolutely terrified me.”
Wiener, meanwhile, found herself “privileged and downwardly mobile” after graduating from college debt-free and landing a job in publishing in New York, where she earned a pittance only tenable because her “generous, forgiving parents” could subsidize her salary. She high-tailed it to San Francisco with the aspirational-for-a-millennial goal of affording her own health insurance; she had only one year left on her parents’ plan. Assessing her New York life, she writes: “The situation was not sustainable. I was not sustainable.”
But Silicon Valley brought a different existential dilemma about what one can and should sustain. Wiener wrestled with whether “to bring up the running list of casual hostilities toward women” she felt it necessary to document at the thriving start-up where she worked. “Compared to other women I’d met, I had it good. But the bar was so, so low.”
As for Fowler, her surreal, harrowing experiences at Uber only intensified. She could not escape her sexist bosses; the worst offenders intentionally gave women poor performance reviews to prevent them from transferring. “The power dynamics within the company seemed sociopathic,” Fowler writes. “Whenever something bad happened – like sexual harassment, verbal abuse, or another form of bullying – instead of the problem being addressed and fixed, it was covered up. Left to seethe and rot, the toxic behaviour slowly infected the rest of the company. It was like a disease.”
Fowler believed it would upend her life to speak publicly about Uber. She was right. She writes that she was stalked by private investigators, who also hounded her friends and family.
“Several people warned me that my life was in danger. ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if they have you killed,’ one famous person in the tech industry said.” The only “morbid thought” that gave Fowler comfort was knowing that, should she be murdered, “everyone would know exactly who was responsible.”
One recurring motif in Uncanny Valley is that people in the start-up scene remind Wiener of children. Commuters to the campuses of search engine and social media titans wear ID badges “clipped to their belt loops or draped on top of their jackets, like children trying not to get lost in a mall.” At the weekly all-hands meeting, staffers converge, “flanking the CEO in a semicircle like children at a progressive kindergarten.” An account manager whispers “as though we were colluding, as though we were five years old.”
When pointing this out, her tone is sometimes one of maternal warmth, even wonder. Other times, she seems dumbstruck that the people building our collective future – a boundaryless dystopia where civilians have no privacy while tech giants sway elections, avert accountability and skip out on paying taxes – are nothing more than enterprising, self-aggrandising boys.
All the women in tech, Wiener writes, had been told by these male power players “that diversity initiatives were discriminatory against white men, that there were more men in engineering because men were innately more talented.” The dark humour in that line sharpens when read in concert with Whistleblower, in which Fowler describes supplementing her rigorous graduate courses at Penn with hours of research on string theory and theoretical particle physics. The idea that hers was the intellectual horsepower Uber could do without, while predatory men needed to be protected at all costs, would be genuinely hilarious if the consequences weren’t so devastating.
As Gamergate-style harassment flourishes, conspiracies metastasize and algorithms push us all to the extremes, one can only imagine the alternate reality in which Fowler and her ilk were the ones hailed as geniuses and given all the money in this world to build a better one. Instead their days were (and are) monopolised by insanity-inducing activities, such as trying to figure out how to report HR to HR.
Meanwhile, a nationwide “techlash” is underway. As the New York Times reports, a younger generation of engineers and innovators are sizing up what would be asked of them should they join these Silicon Valley stalwarts – complicity in the family-separation efforts of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, say, or the steady erosion of democracy – and are opting out.
Fowler is now a tech editor at the New York Times. Since leaving Uber in 2016, she hasn’t written a single line of code.