Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Susan J. Fowler

Revenge of the nerds

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“Those cops know who you are,” [Starling] said. “They look at you to see how to act.” She stood steady, shrugged her shoulders, opened her palms. There it was, it was true.

—Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs

Over the last six months, a pattern of behavior within the technology world has been coming into focus. It arguably began with Susan J. Fowler, a software engineer who published a post on her personal blog with the pointedly neutral title “Reflecting on One Very, Very Strange Year at Uber,” which, with its account of sexism, harassment, and the dismissal of her concerns, set off a chain of events that culminated in the resignation of Uber founder Travis Kalanick. More recently, we’ve seen similar reports about the venture capital firm Binary Capital, the investment incubator 500 Startups, and now the electric car company Tesla. Even at a glance, we can draw a few obvious conclusions. The first is that most companies still have no idea how to deal with these accusations. By now, it should be abundantly clear that the only acceptable response to such allegations is to say that you’re taking them seriously. Instead, we get the likes of Binary’s original statement, which said that the partner in question “has in the past occasionally dated or flirted with women he met in a professional capacity.” (The firm quickly reversed itself, and it’s now being rewarded with the possibility that it may simply cease to exist.) Another inference is that the number of cases will only grow, as more women come forward to share their stories. And a third takeaway is that most of these companies have certain qualities in common. They’re founded and run by intelligent, ambitious men who may not have had a lot of romantic success early in life, but who now find themselves in a position of power over women. It’s a dynamic not unlike that of, say, a graduate department in philosophy. And it’s worth wondering if we’re fated to hear similar stories whenever male overachievers with poor social skills become gatekeepers in industries where women are at a numerical disadvantage.   

As it happens, an experiment along those lines has been ongoing for over ninety years, in a closed setting with ample documentation. It’s the science fiction fandom. Most of the evidence is anecdotal, but this doesn’t make it any less compelling. In the anthology The Hugo Winners, which was published in 1962, for instance, Isaac Asimov wrote of Anne McCaffrey: “She’s a woman in a man’s world and it doesn’t bother her a bit.” He explained:

Science fiction is far less a man’s world than it used to be as far as the readers are concerned. Walk into any convention these days and the number of shrill young girls fluttering before you (if you are Harlan Ellison) or backing cautiously away (if you are me) is either frightening or fascinating, depending on your point of view. (I am the fascinated type.)

The writers, however, are still masculine by a heavy majority. What’s more, they are a particularly sticky kind of male, used to dealing with males, and a little perturbed at having to accept a woman on an equal basis.

Asimov concluded: “It’s not so surprising. Science is a heavily masculine activity (in our society, anyway); so science fiction writing is, or should be. Isn’t that the way it goes?” But Anne McCaffrey, with her “Junoesque measurements and utter self-confidence,” was doing just fine. He added: “I have the most disarming way of goggling at Junoesque measurements which convinces any woman possessing them that I have good taste.” As an illustration, he told an amusing story of how McCaffrey beat him in a singing competition, prompting him to point at her chest and protest: “It’s not fair. She has spare lungs!” How could any woman possibly feel out of place?

You could excuse this by saying that Asimov is joking, using the bantering tone that he employs in all of his essays about the fandom, but that’s problematic in itself. Asimov consciously mastered an informal style that made readers feel as if he were confiding in them, telling his publisher, who had expressed doubts about his approach: “They will feel themselves inside the world of science fiction.” And they did. At a time when the genre was rapidly expanding into the mass culture, he made it seem as close and intimate as it had been in the thirties. But he also gave hints to fans about how they were supposed to talk about themselves, and sometimes it wasn’t particularly funny. (It also had a way of excluding anyone who wasn’t in on the joke, as in Asimov’s infamous quip to Samuel R. Delany.) This wasn’t a new development, either. A quarter of a century earlier, as an unknown fan in the letters column of Astounding, Asimov had written: “When we want science fiction, we don’t want swooning dames…Come on, men, make yourself heard in favor of less love mixed with our science.” Later, he doubled down on his position: “Let me point out that women never affected the world directly. They always grabbed hold of some poor, innocent man, worked their insidious wiles on him…and then affected history through him.” He concluded that he should probably stop before he inspired a “vendetta” of all the female fans in the country: “There must be at least twenty of them!” If this was a joke, it persisted for decades, and he wasn’t the only one. When you look back at those letters, their suspicion or bemusement toward women practically oozes off the page, and you get a sense of how hard it must have been for “a female woman”—as one identifies herself in 1931—to enter that world. There was a debate about whether women even belonged, and Asimov cheerfully participated: “The great philosophers and the great religious leaders of the world—the ones who taught truth and virtue, kindliness and justice—were all, all men.”

This doesn’t even get to Asimov’s own behavior with women, which deserves a full post in itself, although I’m frankly not ready to tackle that yet. And while I don’t mean to pick on Asimov on particular, maybe, in a way, I do. In The Hugo Winners, Asimov describes himself as “a ‘Women’s Lib’ from long before there was one,” and his political views were unimpeachably progressive. (I’m sure you could say much the same thing about the founders and employees of most of the firms mentioned above.) He was also the most visible ambassador of a subculture that continues to have a troubling track record with women and minorities, in ways both explicit and implicit, and he wasn’t just symptomatic of its attitudes, but one of its shapers. Fans looked to Asimov for cues about how to behave, because he was exactly what they wanted to become—a shy, lonely kid who grew up to be famous and beloved. And we don’t need to look far for parallels. In an internal email sent two days after the termination of the woman who says that she was fired in retaliation for her claims, Elon Musk wrote:

If you are part of a less represented group, you don’t get a free pass on being a jerk yourself. We have had a few cases at Tesla where someone in a less represented group was actually given a job or promoted over more qualified highly represented candidates and then decided to sue Tesla for millions of dollars because they felt they weren’t promoted enough. That is obviously not cool.

It certainly isn’t. And although Tesla has said that “this email in fact did not reference Ms. Vandermeyden or her case,” it doesn’t matter. The assumption that the presence of “jerks” among less represented groups—who allegedly benefit from special treatment “over more highly qualified represented candidates”—is pervasive enough to be singled out like this sends a message in itself. Musk is a hero to many young men inside and outside his company, just as Asimov, whose books he deeply admires, was to his fans. Many are bright but socially confused, and they’re looking to be told how to act. And as Clarice Starling once said under similar circumstances: “It matters, Mr. Crawford.”

The luxury of disruption

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Uber Apps

What we maybe should’ve realized sooner was that we are running a political campaign and the candidate is Uber.

—Travis Kalanick, to Vanity Fair

Earlier this week, Susan J. Fowler, a software engineer, published a long post on her personal blog with the pointedly neutral title “Reflecting on One Very, Very Strange Year at Uber.” It’s a gripping read that exposes a corporate culture that is dysfunctional both toward women—with its sexism, rampant sexual harassment, the dismissal of such concerns by human resources, and a steadily diminishing percentage of female employees—and toward just about everyone else: “It seemed like every manager was fighting their peers and attempting to undermine their direct supervisor so that they could have their direct supervisor’s job.” The piece, or at least its reception, has prompted Uber founder Travis Kalanick to hire former Attorney General Eric Holder to look into these allegations, a measure which is presumably intended to impress us with its seriousness, but which comes off as an unintentionally hilarious way of investigating one’s own company. (As Thornton McEnery of Dealbreaker puts it: “Travis seems to only have one move: Hire a former Obama administration official and hope that’s what caring looks like.”) The news doesn’t really affect me personally: as I’ve explained elsewhere, I deleted Uber a long time ago for other reasons. But what strikes me the most about Fowler’s essay is its tone, which is calm, controlled, and understated, even when she relates incidents of profound humiliation. For instance, when she reported her manager’s inappropriate sexual advances, she was told that her only options were either to find a different team or to continue to report to the man who harassed her, at the risk of a poor performance review. In response, Fowler writes: “I remarked that this didn’t seem like much of a choice.”

That “remarked” is what sticks with me. It casts Fowler as an objective observer to her own story, and it isn’t just a rhetorical device, although she maintains it masterfully throughout the essay. (The only place where she falters is at the end, where she writes, not altogether convincingly: “I can’t help but laugh at how ridiculous everything was. Such a strange experience. Such a strange year.”) Even at work, from the very beginning, Fowler did exactly what she had to do: she took screenshots of her interactions with her manager, kept records, went through proper channels, and was good at her job. In the end, it didn’t matter, at least not at Uber itself. When she requested a transfer to another project, she was told that she had “undocumented performance problems,” and after asking for more information, she was told, bewilderingly: “Performance problems aren’t always something that has to do with work, but sometimes can be about things outside of work or your personal life.” But even if the discipline that she displays here didn’t lead to the professional results that she deserved, it’s indispensable when it comes to sharing her experiences. As my wife pointed out, when a woman comes forward with this kind of story, she has to do everything right. Any perceived shortcoming or compromise will be seized upon as an excuse to undermine her credibility. Fowler, to her credit, appears to have conducted herself with unwavering intelligence and integrity—but if she hadn’t, we probably wouldn’t have heard her account at all. Silicon Valley loves to talk about “failing faster,” but a woman in her situation doesn’t get to fail and try again. She gets exactly one chance. And the fact that she pulled it off isn’t an accident, but a reflection of the inhuman standards that we impose on all those who dare to speak out.


When we look at Uber itself, the contrast couldn’t be more stark. I won’t even get into the instances of illegal or unethical activity by individual drivers, or the legal actions and protests the company has weathered from taxi companies, both of which were probably unavoidable. But even when we set these aside, Uber’s corporate track record is exceptionally toxic. It misled prospective drivers by exaggerating potential earnings and minimizing the cost of leasing or buying a car. Its employees ordered thousands of rides from its competitors and canceled them, both to waste the drivers’ time and to lure them into joining Uber instead. One project focused on inserting moles into Lyft to learn about its launch plans and recruit its drivers. As I’ve discussed at great length in my previous post on the subject, an executive at Uber threatened to dig into the background of a journalist who was critical of its policies, and another shrugged off the ensuing outrage with the hashtag #HatersGonnaHate. They’ve even used their internal tracking system to follow the movements of reporters and politicians. You’d expect to see an intense level of scrutiny directed toward any startup that grew as quickly and had as much of an impact as Uber has, but even if you account for this, the company has demonstrated in half a dozen different ways that it’s an ethical mess. Unlike Fowler, who had to retain a laserlike focus to tell her story in a credible way, Uber gets to fail and flail endlessly on the assumption that it will eventually be forgiven. And maybe it will be. I’d be the first to admit that Uber is built on a transformative idea, a useful service, and a beautiful app, which means that it had to screw up to a truly remarkable degree to convince its users to delete it. Well, as Angelica Schuyler once said to Kalanick’s favorite founding father, congratulations. It has invented a new kind of stupid.

And its culture is inseparable from the idea of “disruption,” which has saturated Silicon Valley to the point where it stands as an article of faith. You’re supposed to break down entire industries and rebuild them in your own image, an approach that favors grand, risky bets rather than systematic growth. But it also tends to attract people, at least on the executive level, who can afford to fail repeatedly because they’ve been granted unlimited second chances, like Fowler’s manager, whose every act of harassment was treated as his first offense. It’s a luxury that isn’t granted to women, or to employees who don’t look more or less like the guys who hired them. Disruption itself is a creed that could only be embraced by those who have their existing cultural and social safety nets firmly in place, and who know that they can’t fall far. Not surprisingly, rather than enforcing the difficult sort of discipline which depends on an endless series of invisible ethical choices, Uber’s usual response to controversy is to radically overcompensate in the other direction, usually by throwing money at it. After Kalanick, who until recently was a member of President Trump’s economic advisory council, expressed only mild criticism of the executive order on refugees, the founders of Lyft announced that they would donate a million dollars to the American Civil Liberties Union—to which Uber retorted that it would establish a fund of three million dollars to defend its affected drivers. Hiring Eric Holder is a similarly flashy gesture meant to correct the slow drift toward the bottom that the company seems fated to repeat, as if it were settling to its natural level. Like a politician granted a free pass by his base, Uber seems convinced that we’ll overlook everything else if it delivers the services we expect. And just as in politics, that’s probably true, up until the moment that it isn’t.

Written by nevalalee

February 22, 2017 at 9:34 am

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