A week ago, thousands of Google employees participated in a mainly female-led global walkout, organized in order to protest Google’s alleged shielding of men who have harassed their female workers. Protesters help signs like “I got reported and he got promoted”, “Worker’s Rights are Women’s Rights,” and “Time’s up, Tech.”
The protest’s seven main organizers demanded “an end to the sexual harassment, discrimination, and systemic racism that fuel this destructive culture” in the tech industry. They also demanded an end to forced arbitration (usually a disadvantage to women who face sexual harassment), and transparent payment records that would ensure there are no pay gaps between woman and minorities and their white male co-workers.
Just yesterday, Google agreed to some of these demands, such as allowing optional arbitration in cases of sexual harassment, but others remain unaddressed.
While Google’s recent sexual misconduct scandals may seem like a recent development, the Google walkout is a protest against years of women being discriminated and undermined in the tech industry. However, as outlined in Programmed Inequality by Marie Hicks, there is also a similarly long history of women fighting back against the discrimination by either mobilizing protests or taking their employment elsewhere. For example, when female workers were compelled to leave Britain’s upcoming computer industry, it experienced a massive decline. However, when these undervalued employees were working with the companies, they helped create multi-billion-dollar tech empires.
The history shows that undervalued employees are not only very influential, but could tell us the direction the US tech industry is going if this Google #metoo movement continues.
Back in the 70s, a female computer worker strike came close to demolishing the British VAT (value added tax) system. The VAT system would collect money to power state services like health care or education. However, the majority female computer labour pool was not treated well.
Computer operated were provided with sufficient financial compensation, but often weren’t able to move up in the company. Other labourers like punch card operators, were very lowly paid and often worked in crowded and unsafe working conditions. These women were viewed as unimportant, and their work was thought to be simpler than it actually was. However, good punch card operators were far and few, and were often better educated than their peers. In fact, many of them were promoted to higher-level computing operation work, if they happened to be male.
The company only realized these worker’s value when they went on strike in the early 70s. In 1973, computer workers and other government workers organized a strike that closed down over 26 computer centers, thus affecting the government agency’s ability to function.
For too long, female workers had been seen as “machine workers’ because their work has been feminized and thus undervalued. But while these workers might have underpaid and female with little opportunities due to sexism, their knowledge of the machinery gave them a lot of bargaining power. Because the women were the only people who could handle the VAT machinery, the government could not use the VAT system and this couldn’t properly collect government tax.
However, women didn’t just leave their workplace because od strikes. Many women were also forced out of their jobs because they got married or had kids. Even today, women are forced out of the tech industry if they choose to take maternal leave. But in those days, leaving work when one got married wasn’t just likely nut necessary for any white, middle class woman who held these kinds of jobs.
Surprisingly, this is how the UK got one of its most successful software start-ups. Back in the 1960s, Stephanie “Steve” Shirley was utterly fed up with the lack of upward mobility for women and tech, and decided to set up her own software company from home.
This was a bit of a risk for a lot of reasons. For one thing, software wasn’t seen as a product at that time, but something that would accompany their mainframe computer. However, Shirley understood that there was a definite need for people who could program code.
Another risk was her primarily feminist business model. Being a wife with a young child, Shirley knew it was difficult for women. So, her company was constructed so that people could work from home, and she even hired women who required family-friendly working arrangements. Her group of female workers, discarded by most corporations, were able to create a multibillion-dollar company.
Even though Shirley’s company thrived, most British computing firms were dragged down by their outdated discriminatory policies. The nation couldn’t progress in the tech industry, and continuous strikes derailed major national projects and gave the technical workers lots of negotiating power.
The US may be going down a similar path. For a lot of people, the US tech industry’s current path echoes that of the UK’s back then. The Google walkout kept saying that “A company is nothing without its workers”.
Hopefully Google and other tech companies will realize this soon.