How Fowler Gives Me Power: Reflections on Susan J. Fowler’s Reflecting on One Very Strange Year at Uber

In line with Fowler though, I am writing from a place of reflection. I'd like to write an honest and open letter about my past experiences with certain companies and institutions. In other words, I'd also like to tell my story, and I'd like it to come from a place of truth not judgement. Fowler doesn't "badmouth" Uber; she discloses and informs.

Last Sunday, Susan J. Fowler, a former employee of Uber, published a post on her blog revealing numerous counts of sexual harassment and discrimination she experienced while working for the company. Her post is straightforward and pretty bias-free; her tone is calm, but frank. While some of her experiences at the company might appall readers, her author’s voice is very professional, leaving readers to interpret the anecdotes for themselves. Her tone is not accusatory; it is forthright.

She bluntly, but neutrally tells, On my first official day rotating on the team, my new manager sent me a string of messages over company chat. He was in an open relationship, he said, and his girlfriend was having an easy time finding new partners but he wasn’t. He was trying to stay out of trouble at work, he said, but he couldn’t help getting in trouble, because he was looking for women to have sex with. It was clear that he was trying to get me to have sex with him, and it was so clearly out of line that I immediately took screenshots of these chat messages and reported him to HR. Fowler does not stop and slander the harasser, instead she lets the anecdote speak for itself.

Throughout her post she conveys numerous work place encounters and professional obstacles that illustrate sexism and discrimination. Impressively, in the chaos of her work environment, Fowler managed to document most of the discriminatory behaviors.

She discloses, I don’t know what I expected after all of my earlier encounters with them [HR], but this one was more ridiculous than I could have ever imagined. The HR rep began the meeting by asking me if I had noticed that *I* was the common theme in all of the reports I had been making, and that if I had ever considered that I might be the problem. I pointed out that everything I had reported came with extensive documentation and I clearly wasn’t the instigator (or even a main character) in the majority of them – she countered by saying that there was absolutely no record in HR of any of the incidents I was claiming I had reported (which, of course, was a lie, and I reminded her I had email and chat records to prove it was a lie). She then asked me if women engineers at Uber were friends and talked a lot, and then asked me how often we communicated, what we talked about, what email addresses we used to communicate, which chat rooms we frequented, etc. –  an absurd and insulting request that I refused to comply with. When I pointed out how few women were in SRE, she recounted with a story about how sometimes certain people of certain genders and ethnic backgrounds were better suited for some jobs than others, so I shouldn’t be surprised by the gender ratios in engineering. Our meeting ended with her berating me about keeping email records of things, and told me it was unprofessional to report things via email to HR.

Fowler’s logical and procedural tone boosts her credibility, highlighting the prejudice in Uber’s tactics. By the end of this paragraph, Uber’s HR is demonstrably in the wrong. The HR rep overgeneralizes here, “she recounted with a story about how sometimes certain people of certain genders and ethnic backgrounds were better suited for some jobs than others.” The HR also gives counterproductive feedback when she said, “it was unprofessional to report things via email to HR.” A person involved in Human Resources should appreciate any form of professional communication, especially a form that can be documented with potential to prove anything.

Fowler’s Uber post inspired me to flip back through the pages of my own career where I recalled numerous encounters with sexual harassment in the work place and at school. As a teenager and a young college student/waitress, I disregarded the systematic sexism of many institutions not because it didn’t affect me but because: a) I was too busy surviving (getting high…getting high grades I mean, paying rent, catching waves) and b) the sexist behavior was common and mostly accepted.

However, if my present self replaced my younger self, I could have protected my identity development from corrosive impacts of sexist behavior and discriminatory practices by pointing out the sexism or by removing myself from prejudiced systems. Unlike Fowler, I did not have the wherewithal to document harassment nor did I have the confidence to even point it out. Notably, I was also much younger and vulnerable, without a college degree, without the clout and professional knowledge of a cooperate engineer.

In line with Fowler though, I am writing from a place of reflection. I’d like to write an honest and open letter about my past experiences with certain companies and institutions. In other words, I’d also like to tell my story, and I’d like it to come from a place of truth not judgement. Fowler doesn’t “badmouth” Uber; she discloses and informs.

I would like to do the same. So, what’s stopping me? Am I worried that some bar & grill might fire me if I reveal a few anecdotes about discriminatory uniforms? Will my high school kick me out for talking “sh*t” about a pervy coach? Is my sexist graduate professor going to fail me if I write about this one time he wanted to come to my house? Technically, the answer to all these questions is no. I’m fully grown, with a career and a strong support structure, so I should be able to communicate a few memories without fear…right?

This is not the case. Divulging testimonies of sexist practices from my past does ignite a small fear in me. As I critically analyze this fear, I can see that it is emotional residue left over from the days when I was powerless and dependent on sexist structures.

I may or may not write more about this. What do you think? Please comment.

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