The existence of widespread sexual harassment and discrimination in the tech sector has been the subject of many books and articles, some of which have been described in previous SWE literature reviews. 2020 saw the publication of a memoir by one of the best-known victims of the hostile climate for women in tech: Susan Fowler, who “blew the whistle” on the ride-sharing company Uber.
Fowler’s memoir, Whistleblower: My Journey to Silicon Valley and Fight for Justice at Uber (Fowler 2020), documents the disturbingly hostile climate for women at Uber in particular, and in the tech sector more broadly. It also demonstrates how efforts to combat that hostile climate often wind up being linked to struggles against other forms of social injustice, something that also became more apparent as a result of events at Google in 2020.
Fowler’s experiences at Uber are relatively well-known. What is less familiar is that she experienced similar problems at every step along the way in her journey to Uber. Whistleblower describes Fowler’s remarkable efforts to educate herself and overcome a disadvantaged childhood, eventually resulting in her admission to the University of Pennsylvania’s undergraduate program in physics. While there, however, she was harassed by another student, who threatened suicide if she didn’t “go out” with him. When she reported the harassment, university authorities failed to guide her to the proper procedures, suggested she change labs (which would harm her plans for graduate school), and even accused her of concealing a relationship with the male student in question. When she sought legal advice, she was cautioned not to sue (although she had a good case) because of the potential consequences for her career.
Fowler, somewhat regretfully, didn’t fight any further and decided to abandon her plans for graduate study in physics, opting instead to pursue a career in the rapidly expanding field of software engineering. She decided to seek a position at a start-up because she valued the autonomy she had had in the university lab context. She accepted a position with Plaid, a small financial technology start-up in the Bay Area, but soon found that sexual inequality was a problem there as well.
When she discovered that her male counterparts were earning more, but working fewer hours, Fowler decided that the long days and lack of corporate professionalism weren’t worth it to her — she sought another position and moved to another start-up, PubNub, which was working on a “plug and play” model for sending out notifications. There, she discovered that she was the only woman on the engineering team and that her boss was both sexist and anti-Semitic. Because small start-ups generally don’t have HR departments, however, there was no one to whom to report her complaints, and she had learned that legal action was unlikely to be of any use. So, she was forced either to stick it out for a while (so as not to appear like an unstable employee) or to move to another position.
At this point, she was contacted by Uber, which was interested in interviewing her. After asking around, Fowler formed a positive impression of the company and could find no record of employee complaints about sexual harassment (not realizing that Uber required employees to agree to forced arbitration of such complaints). She was told, during interviews, that Uber had a large number of female employees (25% of engineers was the figure she kept hearing). Based on what she heard and saw, and thinking that a larger company like Uber would have an HR department to whom one could complain if problems arose, she accepted a position.
Almost immediately after she began her new job, Fowler experienced sexual harassment by her manager, who started a “chat” with her about his “open marriage.”
HR agreed with her that this was harassment, but declined to sanction the manager because it was a “first offense.” Instead, Fowler agreed to transfer to a new site reliability engineering unit. There, she found herself being deliberately isolated by managers and, as she interacted with other women engineers at Uber, she discovered that their experiences had been similar. A group effort to complain to HR resulted in more stonewalling and no action against the managers accused (if anything, HR was more inclined to accuse the victims of being the problem). Fowler grew increasingly disenchanted and eventually decided to quit after repeated failures to get HR and Uber management to take action.
Some months later, after hearing from friends about the continued problems at Uber and reading about Uber management’s controversial relationship with the new Trump administration, Fowler decided to take the risk and go public with her concerns. She wrote a blog post that went viral within hours of her posting it. Eventually, her accusations resulted in Uber’s organizing an independent review of its practices (one of the leads was former Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder). Although Fowler was spied on and found herself the subject of rumor mongering, the investigation supported her claims (and even went further), resulting in a change of leadership at Uber.
While there is a sadly familiar tale of sexual harassment and discrimination at the core of Fowler’s memoir, she herself makes the point that the problems she experienced went beyond that. In her view, the existence of, and tolerance of, sexual harassment at Uber was connected to a larger corporate immorality that resulted in mistreatment of all kinds of employees (not just women) and in bad behavior in the larger world in which Uber operated:
“Uber’s success was due, in large part, to its aggressive disregard for the law; Travis Kalanick and his team were operating in cities across the world without permission, unashamedly breaking and disregarding laws and regulations — all in the name of ‘hustle’ and ‘disruption.’ Unfortunately, as I experienced firsthand that spring and summer, the aggression that had precipitated Uber’s meteoric rise was also directed at the lowest-ranking employees in the company. Disregarding laws, rules, and regulations was so entrenched in Uber’s culture that managers within the company seemed to believe that various rules — including employment law and basic human decency — no longer applied to them. Berating employees, insulting them, mocking them, and threatening them were all commonplace behaviors that went unpunished. Promotions, bonuses, and praise were often used to manipulate employees, HR, and other managers; after one of my female colleagues received a promotion, she confided in me that she was sure she’d been promoted because her manager had just been reprimanded for sexual harassment and was ‘trying to cover his ass’” (Fowler 2020: 148-9).
She acknowledges that Uber was in some ways quite serious about trying to be more diverse and had implemented a number of diversity initiatives, but, as she puts it, “Uber didn’t just need more women engineers; it needed to stop breaking the law” (Fowler 2020: 161). “Trying to repair Uber’s aggressive disregard for civil rights and employment laws with diversity and inclusion initiatives was like putting a Band-aid on a gunshot wound” (Fowler 2020: 162).
Fowler’s call for a broader “culture change” at Uber found echoes, in 2020, in events that transpired at another well-known tech company: Google. In November 2020, a dispute arose at Google over the work of a prominent artificial intelligence (AI) researcher, Timnit Gebru, Ph.D. (who is a Black female) (Wong 2020). A senior manager at Google told Dr. Gebru that she would have to retract or remove her name from a paper she had co-written. The paper argued that tech companies could do a better job of designing AI systems that did not incorporate (or worsen) historical gender and racial biases. It also noted the harmful environmental consequences of large AI models (which consume huge numbers of resources) and warned against the possibility of deception and manipulation enabled by these models (Hao 2020). Dr. Gebru attempted to negotiate a resolution, but Google refused her suggestion, resulting in her leaving the company (Google says she resigned, while others argue she was terminated). Google managers stated that the publication did not meet its publication standards, but 1,200 Google employees and more than 1,500 others signed a letter of protest against what they saw as a restriction on the kinds of research Google would permit. The letter explicitly links concerns about diversity in employment to the question of how the work done by tech companies affects social justice: “The termination is an act of retaliation against Dr. Gebru, and it heralds danger for people working for ethical and just AI — especially Black people and people of color — across Google” (Wong 2020: 2).
The Gebru incident helped spark the formation of the Alphabet Workers Union by more than 500 Google workers and contractors in late 2020 (Conger 2021; Allyn 2021). The union is a “minority union” without the collective bargaining rights, grievance procedures, and other characteristics of a traditional union. Indeed, according to its vice-chair, the union’s “goals go beyond the workplace questions of ‘are people getting paid enough?’” (Conger 2021: 2). Rather, it extends earlier efforts (a walkout in 2018 to protest the company’s handling of sexual harassment; protests against Google’s involvement in developing AI for the Defense Department, and assisting Customs and Border Protection) to give a collective voice to employee-activists concerned to ensure their employer behaves ethically. As one engineer put it,
“There is massive power that has been concentrated at the executive level. As a tech employee, it’s a reasonable ask to ensure that this labor is being used for something positive that makes the world a better place.”
– (Allyn 2021: 6)
Like Susan Fowler, the members of the Alphabet Workers Union feel that ending what they see as the mistreatment of tech workers (including sexual harassment and an inadequate commitment to diversity) cannot be separated from an effort to ensure that their employer is ethical in all of its actions.
Whether the Alphabet Workers Union lasts or has a significant effect on the policies and practices of Google remains to be seen. The controversy that helped spark the emergence of the Alphabet Workers Union, however, seems to be continuing. In February 2021, Google fired a second female researcher, staff scientist Margaret Mitchell, Ph.D., who had been co-leader with Dr. Gebru of Google’s ethical AI team and had co-authored the article that led to her departure. Dr. Mitchell had been publicly critical of that termination and criticized the company for undermining the credibility of her work (Dave and Dastin 2021).
Google attributed Dr. Mitchell’s dismissal to her having committed multiple violations of company security policies, including the “exfiltration of confidential business-sensitive documents and private data of other employees”; it was described as following the recommendation of investigators and a review committee (Grant, Bass, and Eidelson 2021).
The announcement of Dr. Mitchell’s firing coincided with an internal email to staff in which Jeff Dean, Ph.D., head of AI at Google, apologized for the way Dr. Gebru’s termination had been handled and promised measures to promote diversity. However, at least one member of the Ethical AI team accused the company of maintaining a double standard for conduct that tolerated sexual misconduct but aggressively pursued employees who “defended friends against discrimination” (Grant, Bass, and Eidelson 2021).
Allyn, B. (2021). Google Workers Speak Out About Why They Formed a Union: “To Protect Ourselves.” NPR, Jan. 8, 2021. https://www.npr.org/2021/01/08/954710407/at-google-hundreds-of-workers-formed-a-labor-union-why-to-protect-ourselves
Conger, K. (2021). Hundreds of Google Employees Unionize, Culminating Years of Activism. The New York Times, Jan. 5, 2021.
Dave, P. and Dastin, J. (2021). Google Fires Second AI Ethics Leader as Dispute over Research, Diversity Grows. Reuters, Feb. 19, 2021.
Fowler, S. (2020). Whistleblower: My Journey to Silicon Valley and Fight for Justice at Uber. NY: Viking.
Grant, N., Bass, D., and Eidelson, J. (2021). Google Fires Researcher Meg Mitchell, Escalating AI Saga. Bloomberg, Feb. 19, 2021.
Hao, K. (2020). We Read the Paper That Forced Timnit Gebru Out of Google. Here’s What it Says. MIT Technology Review, Dec. 4, 2020.
Wong, J.C. (2020). More Than 1,200 Google Workers Condemn Firing of AI Scientist Timnit Gebru. The Guardian, Dec. 4, 2020.