This story reflects the views of this author, but not necessarily the editorial position of Fast Company.
When it comes to the conversation about women in tech, there’s good news and bad news.
The good news is that the grand illusion of a Silicon Valley meritocracy has been called out. By this point, most of us are willing to admit that hard work and bright ideas aren’t always enough to rise above the double standards that plague every aspect of society. Though the disbelievers linger stubbornly in our peripheries (men are three times more likely to believe tech is a meritocracy), the numbers at least stand unwaveringly against them.
- Only 7% of U.S. Venture Capital decision-makers are women.
- The average woman developer makes almost 30% less than her male counterpart.
- Only 20% of the 2016 Fortune 100 CIOs were women.
These stats–along with the recent rash of sexual harassment allegations–paint a picture of an industry that unwittingly treats women as second-class citizens.
Yet despite being aware of tech’s gender problem, we haven’t found a solution. Despite the visibility of diversity-oriented initiatives at big companies, the gender gap and sexual harassment remains a deeply pervasive, systemic problem. And while women like Susan Wu, Cheryl Sew Hoy, Ellen Pao, and Sheryl Sandberg have paved the way in speaking out, the backlash they face is both disheartening and dissuasive for other women.
On the one hand we’re very much inspired by these brave women, but on the other, their experiences embed a sense of fear in us about the real repercussions of taking a stand. Future hire-ability issues, shaming, and name-calling are just a few of the things that women have to face when they call out anything from preferential treatment to unequal pay to unwanted sexual attention.
Analysis around this issue has revealed one of the major links between tech and the rest of the world. Investors fuel the tech industry and have concentrated power over the industry. Historically, those with the power to invest have mostly been white men. According to the Forbes 2016 Midas List, women make up 8% of investment teams. Black and Latino individuals come in at a staggering 1%. Add to this the inherent in-group favoritism—the idea that people favor those who are similar to them—and you have a recipe for self-perpetuating hegemony in which anyone who is not white or male has a harder chance of tapping into circles of real power.
In order to make a difference and disrupt the industry, women in tech need both power and money. The only way to accomplish this? We need to unionize.
The idea of unions in tech is by no means a new one, though with varying outcomes. Atari workers attempted to do so in both 1982 and 1983. Tesla factory employees are trying it. Apple retail employees tried and failed, though they managed to win some wage concessions in the process. Alliance@IBM, possibly one of the oldest tech unions, represents IBM employees.
Historically speaking, the idea of unionizing in the tech world has been considered nothing short of insane. Intel’s Robert Noyce famously said that “remaining non-union is essential for survival for most of our companies. If we had the work rules that unionized companies have, we’d all go out of business.”
More recently, however, the tech world is opening up to the notion, and interest has been ramping up in response to the current political environment. The tides are turning, and unionizing no longer seems like the crazy idea it once might have been. “If workers can get organized somewhere in Silicon Valley, they can bring a legitimate view to the table and claim political power,” said Stan Sorscher, physicist and former Boeing engineer. “The most thrilling thing an organizer can do is get people out in the street, and then convert that into real power.” Sorscher represents 22,650 professionals in the aerospace union SPEEA.
The technology industry is, in the larger scope of American business, a very young industry in comparison to oil, steel, health, and insurance, which are decades or centuries older. With this in mind, the history of these industries shows the only thing that enacted major change for the workers was when they unionized. The American labor movement was first started by the Lowell Mill girls in 1843.
Even though their strikes and organizing actions were crushed by management, they made an indelible impact on American culture. As one of the workers said about their efforts, “They have at last learnt the lesson which a bitter experience teaches, not to those who style themselves their ‘natural protectors’ are they to look for the needful help, but to the strong and resolute of their own sex.” Today, approximately half of all union workers today are women and have spearheaded issues like paid family leave and child care.
The Women’s Trade Union League, founded in 1903 and dissolved in 1950, unionized women of all levels in many different industries to fight against sweatshop conditions and broadened its mission to fight against discrimination through strikes and legislative reform. The working conditions were so horrific at the time for so many that the only way to make a difference was to speak in one voice, regularly, and have a large body able to sway the industry with major bargaining power.
While we have admirable organizations like Girls in Tech and Girls Who Code ushering in the next generation of tech women–the problems the industry faces now cannot be addressed through only education. We need bold, strong, women to rise up and awaken a solution.
Women in tech currently have no real collective organization to air grievances and then in turn fight against injustices together. Instead of gawking at the current state of affairs and nodding in solidarity–we need a movement. Without a union, without an organized body to speak as one and say “enough is enough”–the status quo will continue. We have all the elements to start, and we must start now.
The change we need can only happen if it is controlled by the working women of tech. We owe it to ourselves and future tech workers to ensure the future for women in tech is fair and free from the many hurdles we face on a daily basis. We need a union.
Jessica Hasson is a serial entrepreneur and founder of PulpPR based in Los Angeles.