She Did It: Susan Fowler, Uber and the Power Struggle over Women’s Voices

Well, she did it. Susan J Fowler set in motion the series of events that got Travis Kalanick ousted as CEO of Uber. Just as Gretchen Carlson did at Fox News with Roger Ailes. It was the voices of two women that ousted two powerful men, by telling their even-more-powerful stories. It had been pretty well-known that the culture of Uber and Fox News were each company hyper-masculine and hyper-competitive. But it was a singular voice, telling that one story of what it was like to be a woman working in these environments, that carried so much power at each.

On the other hand, this is not the only reason women’s voices are in the news these days: Arianna Huffington was interrupted by a sexist joke at an Uber all-hands meeting on – of all things – the company’s actions to improve its sexist culture. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren have both been shushed; Kamala Harris being called “hysterical” on a CNN panel and Elizabeth Warren being called….well, lots of things.

I’ve been there: at Citi, I was literally told to “sit down and shut up” when I was fighting to reimburse client funds for losses on high-risk products – that we had mistakenly sold as low-risk – in the downturn of 2008. I was literally told those words: “Sit down and shut up.”

What’s playing out on these public stages is, of course, also happening in the workplace. There’s not a single professional woman I know who doesn’t have story after story after story of being “shushed,” or talked over, or interrupted, or not heard. And in almost every women’s group I speak to, the questions of “How can I be heard at work?” or “How did you manage to be heard in a male environment?” are asked. Being heard is, after all, a key precondition for being recognized at work, for getting that raise, for moving ahead, for getting promoted.

The answer? Well, an all-male PR panel (a “manel”) recently told women the solution is “speaking up more loudly.” Gee, thanks, guys. That should do the trick…..

Or not.

Here’s how I managed it, day to day: when I worked on Wall Street, I made sure I was “the one with the numbers,” either as a research analyst or CFO. In such an analytical environment, I figured that if I had the numbers, then I had “the answers”…and so people would want to hear what I had to say. I also intuitively figured that if I was sharing facts, the leadership team would get used to hearing from me….and then I could also begin to share opinions.

My other tactic was using humor when spoken over, to soften the back and forth out a bit, and to draw attention to being interrupted without seeming angry.

A tactic that other women (including those in the Obama White House) have used effectively is for several of them to agree to underscore each other’s ideas in a meeting, making sure credit goes to the woman who introduced the idea.

I’ll be honest: my approaches to being heard sometimes worked, and sometimes they didn’t…and it typically was pretty dependent on who my boss was. For example, in one of my 360-degree performance reviews, I was told I was both too aggressive and not assertive enough – that “my voice” was both too loud and not loud enough. (So much for the advice to “speak up more loudly.”) When I asked my boss how to interpret this and to help me to navigate through it, he told me it was up to me to figure it out.

In contrast, I’ve also had bosses who’ve made sure I’ve been heard, who have asked for my point of view in meetings, who have not made a decision until all voices in the room were invited to speak.

So, some important advice: get yourself a great boss….if you can.

That said, the ultimate solution for Susan and Gretchen – and for myself, in those tough environments – was to leave. I have been fortunate enough to start a business as my next chapter. By doing this, the market determines our success, rather than it being the partial result of navigating this type of minefield. But make no mistake, we were each fortunate enough to have the means to do so….means that so many women don’t have.

At its root, we should recognize that this tug-of-war over who is shushing and who is talking is all about power. So my work is all about how to get women more power: in my bio, it says my “professional mission is to help women reach their professional and financial goals.” But, to be more direct, my mission is to get women more money, by closing their gender investing gap and their other gender money gaps.

After all, money is power. And greater financial security in turn gets women more power…power that we can use to start our own businesses, if we choose; to pull a Susan Fowler if needed; to quit a dead end job with a deadbeat boss; to leave a bad personal relationship…..and even to interrupt the guys. Oh, and in doing so to make the business world better for other women (and the guys too….I’ll bet a lot of them could use a break from those cultures, right?).

Cheers to Susan Fowler and Gretchen Carlson.

And thank you.

Sallie Krawcheck
About the author: 

Sallie Krawcheck is Chief Executive Officer of Ellevest, an upcoming digital investment platform for women, and she is Chair of Ellevate Network, the global professional women’s network. Ms. Krawcheck was the Chief Executive Officer at Citi Wealth Management, Smith Barney and Merrill Lynch Wealth Management. She has her MBA from Columbia Business School.  Follow her on Twitter.