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Susan Fowler is a former site reliability engineer (SRE) at Uber. In 2017, then-25-year-old Fowler published a blog post on her website (opens in new tab) detailing the sexual harassment she faced at the ride-sharing company during her two year tenure. Her post, which went viral, resulted in the ousting of Uber's CEO and a major reckoning in Silicon Valley. Here, in an excerpt from her new book, Whistleblower: My Journey to Silicon Valley and Fight for Justice at Uber (opens in new tab), Fowler recounts her experience at Uber's Christmas party—her first clue that the company wasn't what it was cracked up to be.
The Christmas season was quickly approaching. On Friday, December 18, Uber held its annual holiday party. During the weeks leading up to the party, when I was going through the various new employee training programs, the party was all everyone talked about. Over lunch, people were making bets about which famous musician would perform at the party; because there had been a private Beyoncé concert on the infamous “Vegas trip,” (opens in new tab) everyone was sure that she (or someone nearly as famous) would be the evening’s musical guest. I’d never been to a Silicon Valley holiday party before; the only Christmas parties I’d ever been to were the ones at my family’s church and the loud, drunken physics department parties at Penn. This was going to be totally different. From the way people talked about it, it was the event of the year, and Uber was a company that prided itself on lavish, blowout parties. It seemed like everyone around me had been planning what they would wear and whom they would bring for months in advance.
After much consideration and some very careful googling about what women wore to Silicon Valley holiday parties, I bought a purple velvet dress that was neither too conservative nor too revealing. Now all I needed was a date. I was single at the time and had sworn off dating, so I asked an old friend from ASU who was now living and working in San Francisco to go with me.
Uber rented out two gigantic buildings at one of the piers on the Embarcadero for the party. It was raining hard that night, and when we arrived—in an Uber, of course—we ran through the rain into the first building, where we waited in a long line as people checked us in and took our coats.
Inside, everyone was dressed to the nines, laughing and mingling over drinks under dancing, flashing lights. In another room, there was a “silent disco,” where everyone wore headphones in which a DJ’s music was blaring. Staff members waited at the walkway between the two buildings, where they were handing umbrellas to party guests. We grabbed an umbrella and ran to the next building, where we found a regular disco under way, complete with a famous DJ and a dance floor. The first building had been one of the nicest parties I’d ever seen, but this one blew them all away—even the party in the Philadelphia Art Museum I’d attended when I first started at Penn. It was sleek and sophisticated, and it had everything. The other employees didn’t seem to think that it was especially fancy, but for me—someone who grew up in poverty, had never gone to prom, and had never gone to a real party aside from the orientation party at Penn—it was like something out of a movie. My friend and I laughed as we compared it with the old parties we used to frequent at ASU, where fifty of us would cram into someone’s two-bedroom apartment with a cheap keg from the drive-through liquor store and dance around the apartment complex pool for hours.
We grabbed some drinks from one of the many open bars, ran to the dance floor, and danced the night away. I didn’t know many people at the company yet, and I was glad to have a close friend there with me. At one point, between songs, I hopped off the dance floor to catch my breath. From where I was standing, near the DJ booth, I could see the entire floor of the building, and that’s when it hit me: almost everyone at the party was standing off to the side, and only a handful of the guests were dancing. I didn’t understand why more people weren’t out there, enjoying the party.
As I stood there, surveying the scene, I realized that the CEO was standing right next to me. I turned to him. “Why isn’t anyone dancing?” I yelled over the music, pointing to the sidelines where most of the employees were standing and drinking. He stared out at the dance floor. I joked that it was a waste of a good DJ. “You should go out there,” I said, “and encourage everyone to dance.” I went back onto the dance floor and danced in my heels until my feet were numb. My friend and I stayed until the very end, when the lights came back on and people started to dismantle the sound stage.
Though I had enjoyed the party, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. Between the weird things that had happened at Uberversity and the lack of joy at the party, it seemed like something was very off about this company, though I couldn’t figure out exactly what it was. I tried to ignore the alarms going off in my head, because I hadn’t even really started working yet. My first day on my new team was Monday, only a few days away, and I hoped, with all of my heart, that I was wrong about Uber.
Adapted from WHISTLEBLOWER by Susan Fowler, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Susan Rigetti.
Rachel Epstein is an editor at Marie Claire, where she writes and edits culture, politics, and lifestyle stories ranging from op-eds to profiles to ambitious packages. She also manages the site’s virtual book club, #ReadWithMC. Offline, she’s likely watching a Heat game, finding a new coffee shop, or analyzing your cousin's birth chart—in no particular order.
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