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Uber Whistleblower Takes On Silicon Valley, Armed With Stoic Philosophy

In 2017, Susan Fowler published a blog post that shook Silicon Valley. Her matter-of-fact account of sexism, sexual harassment and "unrelenting chaos" on Uber's software teams prompted a reckoning that brought down CEO Travis Kalanick.

It's easy to focus on what happened to Fowler. Her manager messaging her about sex on her very first day. A different manager sneakily changing her good performance review to a bad one, to block her from moving to a less-dysfunctional unit. The absurd episode with the leather jackets.

But in her new memoir, Whistleblower: My Journey to Silicon Valley and Fight for Justice at Uber, Fowler makes a dedicated plea for you to focus, instead, on what she did about it. Again and again throughout the book, she says she wants to be the hero of her story — not the victim. Or, to use an Isaiah Berlin quote she's fond of, "a subject, not an object."

The memoir does provide more eyebrow-raising details about just how hostile and chaotic Uber's workplace was. But Fowler is much more interested in unpacking how — and why — she responded by going public.

Her upbringing was unusual: She grew up in a large, impoverished, deeply religious family in rural Arizona and was homeschooled before becoming wholly self-taught. She calls it a wonderful childhood, full of books and music and desert adventures, but it certainly wasn't easy. As a child, she describes feeding venomous spiders to help support the family (yes, seriously), and as a teenager the lack of a structured education brought her to tears repeatedly.

Fowler spends little time on her youth, which some readers may find disappointing, and aside from a partial biography of her father, she never fleshes out her siblings or parents into characters.

She focuses more on college, where, in addition to starting her lifelong study of philosophy, she fell in love with physics, only to discover she was woefully unqualified for the math courses. Over intense opposition from administrators, Fowler says, she took them anyway — and, after some rocky early classes, thrived.

She seemed on track for a Ph.D. in physics until what she describes as a painful and rather bizarre experience of mistreatment — one that clearly shaped her reaction to harassment at Uber. Fowler says multiple professors instructed her to set aside her research work and instead dedicate herself to monitoring and supporting another student who had threatened suicide. The administration wouldn't help her, and she faced retribution for her complaints, she says. (NPR has reached out to the university for comment.) Lawyers advised that going to court would be more misery than it was worth, so she walked away from physics.

Fowler had dreamed of being an architect, then a violinist, then a philosopher or a physicist. She had never dreamed of being a software engineer. But she needed to do something, and her physics work had involved coding, so, software engineering it was. And yes, if you're keeping track at home, this means Silicon Valley was a backup career choice.

At her first tech job, she writes, she was paid significantly less than her male co-workers. At the second, she describes an openly misogynistic boss. She hoped making the switch to Uber — a large, established company with an HR department — would pay off in better working conditions.

Alas, we all know how that turned out.

Fowler's occasionally eye-popping account of life at Uber ends with her making the leap to another job and reflecting seriously on her ethical obligations before deciding to speak out. In the anxious months after she went public with her story, she says she was followed and investigated by Uber goons. But the story does not end with Uber's triumphant revenge: Fowler emphasizes that she's thriving in every way possible.

This memoir is a bit of a how-to book, too, with some take-home lessons for anyone discouraged by a hostile workplace.

Document everything, Fowler emphasizes: Screenshots; copies; detailed notes. Complain through the proper channels, even if you know they won't work, and document your complaint. If it happens again, complain again. Do your job very well throughout (and document that, too). Know your rights. If they say you're the only one with a complaint, check if that's true. And seriously, document everything.

If none of that works? Consider what you owe the world. Read some philosophy. Or, in Fowler's case, read a lot of philosophy — especially the Stoics. Then decide what to do with your mountain of documentation.

And while solving Uber's management issues is not Fowler's concern, she does have a word of caution for the company and its peers.

Silicon Valley has caught on to the fact that it has a diversity problem. Large companies are vowing to do more to recruit women and underrepresented minorities. But Fowler bluntly says that's no solution.

"Uber didn't just need more women engineers, or more employees of color," she writes. "It needed to stop breaking the law .... It didn't matter how many black engineers we hired, if they were discriminated against; it didn't matter how many women we put into positions of power, if those women perpetrated or enabled the illegal behavior."

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Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.