Review of Susan Fowler’s Memoir Whistle Blower
If you have been sexually harassed and bullied in the workplace, this memoir will resonate.
I first learned about Susan Fowler while driving and listening to NPR. She was being interviewed by 1A’s host Todd Zwillich about her new memoir Whistle Blower: My Journey to Silicon Valley and Fight for Justice at Uber.
Fowler spoke about growing up poor, being homeschooled, her nightmare at Penn as a graduate student, and her ordeal of sexual harassment, bullying, and retaliation at her place of employment, Uber.
She sounded so young because she is — she’s in her late 20s. How could someone so young have endured such an ordeal in her young professional life? I couldn’t believe my ears. Fowler’s memoir resonated with me on so many levels. I had to read Whistle Blower.
Fowler writes in detail about having been bullied, harassed, demeaned, and denied her masters degree at University of Pennsylvania for speaking out and doing the right thing. She soon finds out that the kind of mistreatment she endured at Penn has followed her into her professional life and employment in the real world.
In the second half of Whistle Blower, Fowler chronicles the nightmare she suffers during her short tenure at Uber. She writes in jaw-dropping detail about what she endured at the hands of then Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, her manager, and how Kalanick, HR, and others in positions of power openly permitted sexual harassment, verbal abuse, and bullying to run amuck.
Fowler is sexually harassed by her manager on her first day as a SRE (site reliability engineer). When she complains and reports her manager, she is demeaned, humiliated, berated, bullied, and sabotaged.
Reaching out to HR for help proves useless. Instead of helping Fowler, HR rewards her sexual harasser with a free pass to do as he wishes because he’s a top performer. Despite her excellent performance reviews, when Fowler requests a transfer, her high performance reviews are changed into low performance reviews and is denied her request for transfer.
Those heading HR make up lies about her, turn the tables on Fowler, and tell her she is the problem. She endures retaliation. She is followed by a private investigator. Fowler’s life is in danger.
She writes, “I told myself every time I noticed someone following me, or when I was warned about possible threats against my life: if anything happened to me, if I was harmed or killed, everyone would know who was responsible.”
Other women suffer too. Fowler writes, “Just like me, they all learned that HR was there to protect the company not the employees….they’d given up on reporting things because they knew from experience that HR would retaliate against them.”
Fowler’s female co-workers are not the only ones suffering at Uber. One married male co-worker commits suicide. Fowler writes, “Uber was a place where goodness was considered a vice, and aggression considered its greatest virtue.”
Fowler suffers panic attacks and cries herself to sleep. But she won’t be broken. Through out it all, she finds ways to stay sane in the midst of unbearable and illegal workplace mistreatment. She writes a book. Her book — Production-Ready Microservices — becomes a bestseller.
And she turns to the wisdom of Fred Rogers, Viktor Frankel, and her father. Growing up, Fowler’s father told her that she “should be in the world, but not of the world.” She writes that through out his life, her father tried to “live in the world, flawed as it was, while as the same time holding himself to a higher standard.”
From her father, Fowler learned that, “it wasn’t easy to be good. It was much easier to be like everyone else…it was much easier…to do nothing.” But Fowler doesn’t do nothing.
She turns to some of her favorite philosophers: Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and the Stoics for strength and courage to do the right thing. Fowler writes that, the Stoics “… reinforced what I already knew; I couldn’t control what others did to me, but I could control how I reacted.”
Epictetus gives her the courage to stand up against Uber.
Fowler will not let blatant disregard for civil rights and employment law thrive at Uber.
She leaves Uber and she writes a blog post — “Reflecting on One Very, Very Strange Year” — on her website about her nightmare at Uber. The post goes viral, and leads to an investigation of Uber by former US attorney general Eric Holder, and to Kalanick’s resignation.
Although Whistle Blower is a page-turner, Susan Fowler’s story is not unique. Many women and men suffer the trauma of harassment and bullying in their place of employment on a daily basis.
Many suffer for years in silence for fear of losing a job they cannot afford to lose. They have families to feed, bills to pay, health insurance that they need, and their children’s college tuition to pay.
At the time Fowler wrote her blog post (it’s an appendix in the book), she was 24 and recently married. Her blog post went viral because of the #metoo movement and because Uber was the source of the sexual harassment and bullying she endured.
Whistle Blower: My Journey to Silicon Valley and Fight for Justice at Uber is an important book for many reasons. It’s the story of a woman who was raised in poverty by loving parents who taught her right from wrong. It’s the story of a woman who was homeschooled and self-taught, and denied her dream of becoming a physicist by faculty and administrators at an Ivy League school.
It’s the story of a woman in her early 20s who went viral with a blog post about the hell she and others endured at Uber in Silicon Valley, and came out the other side. While some might see Fowler as self-absorbed and full of ego, Whistle Blower is the story of a courageous woman who had enough and did something about it.
People who are harassed, bullied, and retaliated against for speaking out are not self-absorbed or full of ego. They are simply trying to preserve their dignity and the right to be respected.
Whistle Blower: My Journey to Silicon Valley and Fight for Justice is a must read for anyone experiencing the living hell that is sexual harassment, general harassment, bullying, humiliation, and retaliation whether it be in Silicon Valley, academia, or any other workplace setting.
If you have ever been bullied, sexually harassed, or retaliated against, Whistle Blower will resonate with you. It did with me. I was bullied, demeaned, humiliated, and retaliated against in my place of employment. I was lied to and lied about. HR was pure hell. If you’ve never been bullied or harassed in any manner, you might find Whistle Blower overwhelming, exhausting, and incredible.
But you will learn the importance of documenting, documenting, and documenting every detail of every day of your workplace mistreatment experience, and how to seek legal help. If you’re the harasser, bully, or HR, you will see yourself in the many in Whistle Blower who had a complete disregard for the law and inflicted pain, trauma, and suffering on employees. I highly recommend Whistle Blower as part of effective human resources training.
Whistle Blower, contains an appendix with resources such as the National Employment Lawyers Association (www.nela.org) to contact if you are experiencing mistreatment in the workplace. I would add the Workplace Bullying Institute (www.workplacebullying.org).
Listen to her interview on 1A on NPR.
For more on Susan Fowler, now Susan Rigetti, visit her website
Originally published in Medium.