Whistleblower Susan Fowler urges students to help reform Silicon Valley

Oct. 3, 2020, 2:35 p.m.

Drawing on her own experiences and the stories of many others, 2017 TIME Person of the Year Susan Fowler urged Silicon Valley to systematically reform what she described as its toxic workplace culture in her virtual talk on Thursday. 

Fowler, who is an engineer, best-selling author and editor at the New York Times, gained renown as one of the pioneering whistleblowers who helped to start the #MeToo movement addressing sexual harassment and assault.

While working as an engineer at Uber in 2016, Fowler said she received several inappropriate messages from her manager describing how “he was in an open relationship” and that “he was looking for women to have sex with.” Fowler said she immediately reported the incident to Uber’s human resources department but was met with dismissal and backlash. Several other women working at the company also came forward to report similar incidents perpetrated by the same man, according to Fowler. Still, she said, HR refused to help. Fowler later left the company, publishing an account of her experiences in a now viral blog post

“It’s really powerful when we do demand justice, even though it comes at great personal cost,” Fowler said. 

When incidents of harassment are not addressed, they become “part of the fabric of the company.” According to Fowler, company leadership must actively combat the normalization of harassment and create systems to support and address employee complaints.

“The sad truth is that individual instances of discrimination [and] harassment will always happen,” Fowler said. “But they should be individual isolated incidents … not systemic issues.” 

Fowler contends that if companies are truly committed to promoting a safe workspace they must put an end to forced arbitration, a clause which requires employees to submit disputes to arbitration and present their individual sides of a complaint to an arbitrator. The employee must wave the right to sue.

Despite being a common part of hiring contracts, she said that forced arbitration is “actually a huge problem.” When workers are obliged to waive their right to sue, she said “employees that have been victimized have no recourse whatsoever and they’re silenced permanently.”

Fowler also argued that diversity and inclusion hiring initiatives are not enough to combat toxic and discriminatory work atmospheres. 

“There was this big disconnect between what a diversity and inclusion initiative could accomplish versus what the problem actually was,” she said. “There was no way that you could fix the problems of … racism and sexism at the company by just hiring more people who are then going to be victims of that illegal treatment.” 

According to Fowler, putting an end to systemic harassment in the corporate and tech worlds requires long-term initiatives, supportive means of filing complaints and seeking redress, and difficult, open conversations. Still, Fowler is hopeful. 

“The fact that I had stood up and got justice for myself ended up helping others get justice too,” she said. 

“I believe that when we do stand up and we demand justice, we demand that we not be treated this way and that it stop and that something be done about it, we pave the way for others.”

The talk was co-hosted by the McCoy Family Center for Ethics and Society, Stanford Speakers Bureau, and CS+Social Good. Ananya Karthik ’23, CS+Social Good Discussions team co-lead and Daily opinions desk editor, served as the moderator. 

“Interviewing Susan Fowler was an incredible experience,” Karthik said. “We’re so grateful to her for sharing her powerful story with us. Through this event we hope to contribute to an important conversation on sexism and sexual harassment, company culture and being an agent of change in society.”

Fowler challenged the audience “to be the agents of change,” emphasizing that Stanford students are in a unique position to have “a huge impact on what Silicon Valley is and what it can become.” 

By committing to cultivating a healthy and supportive atmosphere in every workplace, Fowler believes that individuals can create “a Silicon Valley, a tech center of the world, that is built on doing the right thing.”

Sarah Lewis is the desk editor of the Humor section, an occasional writer for the Science and Technology news desk, and a gluttonous devourer of cheesy speculative fiction novels. She can often be found wearing silly hats in the Daily's satirical news videos, belting musical theatre songs, or burning toast. Contact her with questions, concerns, or Shakespearian insults at slewis 'at' stanforddaily.com

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