BusinessDay

The story of Susan Fowler and why bargaining with injustice doesn’t work

In February 2017, an engineer working at Uber completed a blogpost she had spent days working on and hit “publish.”

What would happen over the ensuing hours, days and months would be possibly the single defining phenomenon in the corporate world of the 21st century so far, complete with high profile resignations, sackings, town hall meetings, organisational audits and a once-in-a-generation shift in HR management policy across the entire world.

Susan Fowler did not know that her blogpost about sexual harassment at Uber would start off a torrent of events that would reach as far afield as Australia and Nigeria.

She was just a 25 year-old engineer who had a story and decided to tell the story.

Explaining her decision to write and publish this blogpost in an interview 3 years later she said, “The most powerful thing you can do is tell the truth, and the most powerful way you can tell the truth is with all this documentation. Then nobody can say it’s a ‘he says, she says’ situation because look, I have the evidence.”

She knew of course, that hitting “publish” would mean a lot of things for her life. She knew that it would mean burning personal and professional bridges with several friends and colleagues within the tech and corporate space.

She knew that it would mean getting dragged into a public mud-slinging battle, as the implicated men and their adjuncts would try their level best to annihilate her credibility and pick holes in her story.

She knew that know-it-alls on Twitter would instantly proclaim her an “attention seeker,” a “sensationalist” and a liar. She knew that it was going to be a fight. Thankfully, she was ready.

Keep ‘Receipts’ And Give Yourself A Chance

What Susan and her likes figured out about life in the corporate space, as well as in the wider world including the world of politics and governance, is that negotiating with bullies, abusers and oppressors is a failed tactic that simply does not work.

People like this have realised after years of observation that justice does not necessarily come to those who deserve it, but is more likely to come to those who work for it.

Responding to a question about why she gathered so many ‘receipts’ to prove her allegations, Susan revealed that she had suffered an earlier injustice that had made her understand how this works.

She described getting blamed for a coursemate’s attempted suicide when she was at university, despite having repeatedly warned the faculty about his erratic, unstable behaviour. From that incident, she said, she learned two things.

First, she learned the value of keeping meticulous records and documentation to avoid the “your word against theirs” scenario.

With screenshots, audiovisual recordings and other incontrovertible records, it would be impossible for the truth to be denied or contested later on. A truth that cannot be contested after all, is one of the most powerful things in the world.

The second thing she learned from that event was the importance of speaking out at the opportune moment and doing so forcefully and unapologetically. What she found out was that when institutions fail in their duty of care, they reflexively look for ways to blame the failure on the victims or innocent bystanders.

Institutions and powerful individuals do not like to take responsibility for negative outcomes of their actions or negligence.

This means that whether it is a sexual harasser, an abusive colleague or a bullying boss, the organisation will instictively “hold the line” to defend the wrongdoer when the metaphorical fecal matter touches the ventilator.

Read also: Seven numbers show Nigeria far from gender parity

Stop Bargaining – Bullies Cannot Be Placated
In my line of work, I regularly come across sources who have done the first half of Susan Fowler’s 2-step plan to conquer abusive organisations and individuals.

They have kept flawless and meticulous records and documented the malfeasance and injustice every step of the way. All that is left is to tell their story in a suitably audible and impactful manner, or to have someone do it for them, which is the point where I typically come in.

Apart from being a decent researcher, I happen to be a pretty good storyteller, and a good part of my work in every piece is figuring out how to present a story for optimum impact.

The problem comes in when these sources realise what the second half of the procedure entails, and then they start to develop cold feet.

I have genuinely lost count of the number of times I have interacted with sources who have country-shaking information, only for them to change their minds about passing it across a few hours after we speak.

I regularly speak to sources who have suffered or are suffering every kind of injustice you can imagine, and just at the point when I am ready to lock their story into my content planner, a Twitter DM, WhatsApp message or voice call comes in quietly informing me that they have changed their mind.

The idea is that no matter how bad their sufferings are, things can become much worse if they dare to tell their story publicly and use the world’s most powerful disinfectant – sunlight – against their oppressor.

Apparently, if they can bargain hard enough with the oppressor; show them enough fealty and willingness to cooperate; act as supine and meek as possible, the oppressor will consider letting up on their oppression, or perhaps even gift them a form of Meritorious Manumission (google it).

Typically, when this message or call comes in, I just respond with a dry “This is noted,” or “That’s fine, I understand.” Then I sigh, shake my head and move on to the next story.

What such people need to learn from Susan Fowler’s story is not that declaring war on her oppressor succeeded (which it did).

They should actually pick out the fact that if she did not do it, she would still be in a bad situation, whether at Uber or elsewhere in Silicon Valley, still righteously keeping quiet and hoping for her silence and cooperation to be rewarded or recognised someday.

She was not the only woman at Uber or in Silicon Valley who suffered those indignities. Most other women either actively participated in their own debasement because they wanted something, or just maintained a pseudo-dignified, oppressed, pathetic silence that helped no one.

If a 25 year old from Yarnell, Arizona did not decide to take on a fight for what is right instead of suffering passively and being just another victim, the gains that women in the corporate space around the world have made since 2017 would likely not have happened.

More people need to understand like she did, that there is no dignity in being stepped on and eaten up by a ruthlessly abusive setup or individual abusers. You have nothing but your chains to lose, and you have everything to gain.

I will close this column with 3 quotes, the first from a military origin, the second from comedian Dave Chappelle’s mother, and the third from the Christian Holy Bible.
“If you want peace, prepare for war.”
“You have to become a lion so you can be the sheep you are inside.”
“Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” – James 4:7

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