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Op-ed: The actions of one woman toppled Travis Kalanick, paving the way for others to speak out

  • Susan Fowler's blog post, personal and level-headed, detailed how her manager was looking for women to have sex with, and other misconduct.
  • The post blew Uber wide open, and the CEO ultimately stepped down.

This week, Travis Kalanick — the legendary take-no-prisoners CEO whose Silicon Valley home is known as a hotbed of entrepreneurial ideas— stepped down from the company.

Susan Fowler, an Uber engineer who now works at Stripe, blew Uber wide open with her blog post, "Reflecting on one very, very strange year at Uber."

Susan Fowler
Source: Shalon Van Tine
Susan Fowler

But Susan Fowler was not the first woman to sound the alarm about foul play at Uber.

Engineer Tess Rinearson wrote a viral blog post in 2016, titled "Dear Uber Recruiter," noting that "Uber's track record on women scares me."

But Tess Rinearson was not the first woman to write about Uber's misconduct.

Sarah Lacy, founder of technology blog Pando Daily and long-time journalist, said in 2014 she had revamped her home security, fearful that Emil Michael, then a top Uber executive, was spying on her after Michael told reporters that he could hire opposition researchers to dig up dirt on them. Lacy had previously written a fierce critique of Uber for a sexist ad campaign in France.

The backlash was fierce. "Masculinity" blog Return of Kings accused her of running an "anti-male" smear campaign.

But Sarah Lacy was not the first woman to talk about Uber's questionable policies.

Uber has always treated its drivers as independent contractors, and has resisted calls for more stringent background checks — for instance, the company (as well as rival Lyft) withdrew service from Austin, Texas, after voters in that city passed a resolution calling for fingerprint checks of Uber drivers. Meanwhile, women across the world accused Uber drivers of raping or sexually assaulting them as early as 2014.

Yet after all this, it was Fowler's blog post that dealt the deadly blow to Kalanick's reign.

The post was special in many ways. A quick glance at her Twitter feed reveals Fowler is well-regarded and is deeply and broadly accomplished. She has intricate, considered opinions on topics ranging from coding to physics to philosophy. Her blog post is personal and level-headed — instead of hurling superlatives at readers, Fowler lays out a simple, well-written chronology that reads as credible.

She described how her manager's chat messages said he "was trying to stay out of trouble at work .... but he couldn't help getting in trouble, because he was looking for women to have sex with." But upper management said he "was a high performer."

She wrote how when men received leather jackets on Uber's dime, "no leather jackets were being ordered for the women because there were not enough women in the organization to justify placing an order."

She described a meeting with her manager where he said she was on "very thin ice for reporting his manager to HR."

"California is an at-will employment state, he said, which means we can fire you if you ever do this again," he said, according to Fowler.

And after that, report after report surfaced describing Uber employees doing drugs, going to escort bars, avoiding regulators, and hiring engineers who may have stolen intellectual property. Over 20 people were dismissed from Uber, although details about the investigation into Fowler's post were never revealed publicly.

But importantly, Fowler's blog post came amid a widening deficit of trust in Silicon Valley.

Amid grumbling about "coastal elites" in middle America, Snapchat reportedly has an exclusive secret floor in its New York office with lavish decorations selected by CEO Evan Spiegel — and pictures aren't allowed. Tesla workers are reportedly passing out on factory floors. Technology companies store hundreds of billions of dollars overseas to avoid paying U.S. taxes that execs such as Apple CEO Tim Cook call "crazy" — a perfectly legal move, but one that doesn't necessarily inspire trust among tax-paying citizens who can't take advantage of rules to lower their tax rate.

As more tech insiders speak out about the culture of the Valley, things are changing — not just for women, but for people of color and people of different social classes who are affected by the goings on in Redmond, Menlo Park, Mountain View and Cupertino.

The internet has amplified the voices of individuals in technology. In addition to Sarah Lacy, female journalists like Recode's Kara Swisher and Johana Bhuiyan, Business Insider's Julie Bort, and many others have helped drive these narratives forward. Activists like Ellen Pao of Uber-investor Kapor Capital put muscle behind this coverage.

Still, the woman who started it all has not gotten her due — Fowler said she has not received an apology from Uber. She recently wrote that confidentiality agreements and forced arbitration still enable bad behavior at many technology companies. Women and people of color are still by far minorities in most big technology firms.

Kalanick, who still owns a huge chunk of Uber stock and will remain on the board, may face waning influence.

But the true effect of Fowler's post is just beginning, as is the work left to be done by technology watchers. Because there are many more whistleblowers like Susan Fowler whose stories have fallen on deaf ears. And perhaps, more CEOs due to be toppled.

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