Last week, tens of thousands of Google employees took over the world in a largely women-wide walkout organized in response to Google's foreclosure and rewarded men who have sexually harassed their female colleagues. Protested had signs saying "I reported and he was promoted", "Employee's rights are women's rights" and "Time's up, Tech".
The seven most important organizers wrote that they required "an end to sexual harassment, discrimination and systemic racism that burns this destructive culture" in tech. Among their demands was the end of forced arbitration, worse women who are sexually harassed and pay transparency that would ensure that women and minorities do not continue to be underpaid and underprotected compared to their white male equality. Yesterday, Google accepted some of these requirements – especially allowing arbitration to be optional in case of sexual harassment – but others are still unaddressed.
This may seem like a new development, but Google Walkout is permeated in a long story – both women are minimized and discriminated against in technology and women claim their power to force change. Like I wrote my book Programmed inequality, I found a lot of signs of discrimination throughout technological history, but I also saw that when women in technological battle return – especially by organizing or taking their work elsewhere – the effects are huge. For example, the woman's forced emigration from Britain's growing early computer industry resulted in British computing's premature decline. When they put their talents at work, they created multibillion dollars software companies. Their experience shows us that not only undervalued employees often have an unexpected amount of power, but they also offer a blueprint for what's coming in the US if the movement started by Google employees continues.
In the 1970's a computer worker hit almost the UK VAT system. Money collected via computer-based VAT-driven critical state services, such as the National Health Service. But computer workers – most of them were women – were treated badly.
Computer operators were paid well, but did not have much room for promotion. Especially punch card operators who provided the system with the data needed to drive and had to hit hundreds of characters per. Minut with almost perfect accuracy, had low pay and often worked dozens of rooms under conditions so noisy that they violated safety standards. The women caught in these jobs were considered insignificant, and the work was mistakenly assumed to be simple. But good punches were hard to find and usually better educated than their peers. In fact, poor punchers were often promoted by punching work to higher level computer work.
When these punchers and computer operators went strike in the 1970s, their meaning became alive. In March 1973, a number of strikes from computer workers who acted in solidarity with other government workers closed a huge 26 computer centers and disturbed the work of nine others that affected the nation's great ability to work. Computer workers had until then been treated as "machine workers" because they used machines and because the work had long been feminized. Although many of these workers were women and limited in their wages, promotion and job opportunities because of sexism, their proximity to the literary government apparatus gave them much power. The most harmful part of the strike was walkout from 25 computer operators working in computer installation for the VAT system. By stopping the work, they also for a time stopped the government's ability to collect this critically important tax.
Even worse than the first strikes, however, were the downsides and passive resistance that followed, with computer workers returning to their jobs, but refused to work on mandatory overtime or perform other necessary work that was not explicitly spelled out in their job requirements. This "work to manage" approach, an old union tactic from the industrialist, worked equally well for information work in post-industrial age. Like factory workers before them, high tech workers used the power of the strike to force their employers to give them better working conditions and to claim their power in the new digital economy. Computer operators, programmers and even the poor punchers whose data entry had been considered insignificant was recognized as crucial after the strikes.
However, women did not leave work during strikes. In fact, many women were forced out of computer computing because they married or had children. Today, women continue to be forced out of tech (and other areas) by hostile mother-law policies. But in the early digital age it was not only likely that the work was getting married, it was all but necessary for the most white middle class women who had these technical jobs.
That's how Britain got one of its most successful early software launches. In the early 1960s, she was provided with the glass ceiling she had experienced working with tech, Stephanie "Steve" Shirley stopped her job, and hardly she put her own software company out of her home. This was a gamble for many reasons, especially because software was not considered a product by itself at this time, but rather expected some computer buyers would come with their mainframe. Shirley knew better. She understood the growing need for people who could program.
Her company was unusual in another way: it had an explicit feminist business model. Married and with a little child at home, Shirley knew how difficult it was for women. So she established her company explicitly so that people could work from home and she focused on hiring women who needed flexible, family-friendly work arrangements. Eventually, Shirley's startup became a multibillion dollar company based on women's work, which had been discarded by mainstream companies.
As Shirley's example shows, feminist, work-centered business practices are not just feeling good; they are incredibly important in maintaining talent and success. And as examples of harassment and discrimination in the Silicon Valley show, discriminatory business models are often destructive. Large companies in Silicon Valley brought products to the market that increased racist and sexist divisions within the American community, which probably caused major damage to our democracy. In an economic sense, our collective wealth is reduced as a nation every time a company like Google urges a harassment a multimillion dollar payment because these businesses are supported by taxpayer-funded infrastructure. In a very real sense, this is a problem that affects us all.
While Shirley's feminist company flourished, other UK computer companies used outdated discriminatory business practices and dragged their industry as a whole. As the country struggled to computerize, unsatisfactory computer workers demanding better treatment not only traced major national projects but also the unmistakable power of technical staff – especially when they took collective actions. In the United States we begin to see the cracks in our technology industry in similar ways. Although Britain went down this road much earlier, the similarities that echoes in our current context in the US are striking and cautious. "A company is nothing without its workers," said the organizers of Google Walkout. They are right. The earlier Google and Silicon Valley take this fact seriously, the sooner we can begin to repair the technology industry as a whole, thereby regretting some of the damage it has caused to US workers and citizens.