2017 Whistleblower of the Year Nominee -- Susan Fowler
On February 19, 2017, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler fired the shot heard round Silicon Valley. In her explosive blog post, “Reflecting on One Very, Very Strange Year at Uber,” Ms. Fowler described rampant sexual harassment and institutionalized sexism at one of the tech world’s most hyped companies. As Maureen Dowd put it, Ms. Fowler “pierced the self-indulgent, adolescent Pleasure Island mentality of Silicon Valley.” In the process, she inspired others to come forward, and forced reckonings from Hollywood to Capitol Hill.
Ms. Fowler’s post described her arrival at Uber as an enthusiastic site reliability engineer in November 2015. Her enthusiasm, however, quickly morphed into shock: On her first day, her manager propositioned her for sex using the company’s internal chat system. Ms. Fowler immediately reported the incident to HR, only to be told that the conduct, while clearly sexual harassment, was the man’s “first offense” and an innocent mistake unworthy of punishment—particularly because the man “was a high performer.” Ms. Fowler decided to join a new team within the company rather than endure additional harassment.
As Ms. Fowler got to know other female engineers at Uber, she was surprised to hear stories similar to her own. Some colleagues even described reporting the exact same manager who had harassed Ms. Fowler. When the women decided to approach HR (yet again) about the harassing manager, they were each told that nothing further could be done. At that point, Ms. Fowler wrote, “we all gave up on Uber HR and our managers” and simply hoped that conditions would improve on their own.
They didn’t. Instead, Ms. Fowler’s team lost nearly all its female engineers, and Ms. Fowler received inexplicably negative performance reviews despite her well-documented engineering success. But Ms. Fowler persisted, sending reports to HR when managers circulated sexist emails and directly confronting the offenders. Things came to a head when the director of her department explained that only male engineers would be receiving team leather jackets—there simply weren’t enough women in the organization to justify the cost of placing a non-bulk order. True women’s equality, the male director informed Ms. Fowler, meant no jackets for women. When Ms. Fowler forwarded this email chain to HR, she was told that she, not Uber, was the problem.
Deciding that enough was enough, Ms. Fowler left Uber at the end of 2016—but she didn’t let the company off the hook. Ms. Fowler’s blog post went viral, causing other female Uber employees to share their stories and, ultimately, forcing the company’s CEO to step down. Her post also inspired women entrepreneurs to come forward with harrowing experiences of harassment by Silicon Valley venture capitalists. Indeed, Ms. Fowler’s courageous post was arguably the harbinger of the outing of Harvey Weinstein, starting a domino effect that has empowered victims to speak truth to power across industries.
Although Ms. Fowler’s whistle-blowing exacted a personal toll, she doesn’t regret her decision to speak out. As she told the New York Times, “If what people know you for is bringing light to an issue about bad behavior, about bad stuff going on and laws not being followed and people being treated inappropriately, why wouldn’t I want that? That’s a badge of honor.” Ms. Fowler, whose courageous act embodies the whistleblowing spirit, deserves your vote for Whistleblower of the Year.