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How Class-action Lawsuits against Silicon Valley Can Benefit All of Us

Anita Hill, an attorney and professor at Brandeis University, is one of my heroines. She had the courage in the early 1990s to accuse her ex-boss Clarence Thomas of inappropriate sexual behavior toward her when he was her supervisor. When she learned that he was nominated for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, she felt she had to testify to his lack of moral character during his confirmation hearings. She came forward and spoke the truth of her experience. While she was not able to stop his confirmation, she did give a voice and a name to the abusive behavior that women have always been subjected to by powerful men—sexual harassment. Her testimony opened a door for women to work together with male allies to make the workplace safer and more inclusive for all women.

Recently, Professor Hill weighed in on the revelations from Silicon Valley about gender discrimination and harassment in the technology industry. She suggests that the industry will benefit from the interventions into sexism experienced by Wall Street in the 1990s—massively expensive and successful class-action lawsuits that brought about industrywide change. Hill notes that “while pay and promotion discrimination still exists [at Wall Street firms], more women on Wall Street are advancing in their careers to managing directorships and other leadership roles.”

Hill points out that the letter released by a young male Google employee that claimed biological differences make women poorly suited to engineering revealed deep-seated sexist attitudes mirrored by recent incidents at Uber and other technology organizations. When a former female Uber employee wrote a blog about her experiences with Uber’s toxic, male-dominated culture, other female coders and engineers came forward with allegations of sexism at Google, Tesla, Twitter, Microsoft, and Oracle, to name a few. Hill cites the following statistics as further evidence of widespread gender discrimination in the tech industry:

  • Women under twenty-five earn, on average, 29 percent less than their male counterparts.
  • For the same job at the same company, women of all ages receive lower salary offers than men 63 percent of the time.
  • Women hold only 11 percent of executive positions at Silicon Valley companies.
  • Women own only 5 percent of tech start-ups.
  • Only 7 percent of partners at the top one hundred venture capital firms are women.
  • Women quit tech jobs at more than twice the rate of men.

According to Hill, while some tech companies have given lip service to improving conditions for women, there is not much genuine action other than offering diversity training, which has limited impact without systemic efforts to change the company culture. For example, in response to a suit alleging wage discrimination against women, Google lawyers said in May that it would be too burdensome for the company to collect data on salaries. In other words, they are not serious about eliminating gender discrimination.

Hill suggests that “women in the industry should collectively consider class-action discrimination cases against employers.” She notes that the existence of confidentiality clauses and arbitration agreements, put into place after the 1990s to preempt class-action suits, do not mean that suits cannot be brought. Now that women in technology are speaking out and refusing to be silenced, they can band together and file suits to bring change to the technology industry. It won’t happen otherwise.

It’s in everyone’s best interests that women in technology file lawsuits. As Hill notes, “The economic benefits could be remarkable. Advancing women’s equality, which includes minimizing the gender gap in labor force participation, holds the potential to add $12 trillion to global G.D.P. by 2025.” Let’s encourage women to step forward.

 

Photo in the public domain courtesy of StartupStockPhotos.

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