Tech industry needs a killer sexism app

In the fight for equality, women in tech can learn from today's labor movement

By Brigid O'Farrell

Published October 1, 2013 9:57PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on Alternet.


“Titstare?” It’s a new app that shows men staring at images of women’s breasts. Or you can photograph yourself staring at breasts and upload the photos to the app.

“This is the ‘breast’ hack ever,” said one of the young men who created the app. “It’s the breast most titillating fun you can have” said the other. The audience laughed, conference officials apologized, and the “boys” tweeted they were sorry if they offended anyone.

Tasteless joke? Women need to lighten up? Just boys being boys? Or symbol of bigger problems in the high - industry of the 21st century? When it comes to sexism at high-tech conferences, this was apparently just the tip of the iceberg. Showcasing lap dancers, offering “women” as perks, using “babes” to sell electronic gadgets, and pretending to masturbate on stage are a few other recent examples.

If this is what goes on in public, what happens in the workplace? Women like Marissa Meyer, CEO of Yahoo, have made it to the top of the high-tech world, but generally women are underrepresented in the related fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). These are areas of predicted high growth, high wage jobs over the next 10 years.

The US Department of Commerce calls the lack of women in STEM a “Gender Gap to Innovation." The percentage of women in computer science and math declined from 30 percent in 2000 to 27 percent in 2009. According to the US Department of Labor in 2012 women were down to 25.6 percent of these fields. Women ranged from one in three web designers to just 8 percent of network architects. Among engineers women go from numbers too small to report such as nuclear or petroleum engineers to 4.5 percent of mechanical engineers and 18 percent of chemical engineers.

According to Nellie Bowles of the San Francisco Chronicle, there is also a large wage gap within high tech. She reports that women in Silicon Valley earn only 49 cents for every dollar a man earns, compared to 77 cents for women nationally. Astia, a nonprofit that works with women-led startups, reports that women own only 8 percent of venture-backed start-up companies. In contrast, in the whole economy the Center for Women’s Business Research finds that women own 40 percent of private businesses.

Could the number of women in Silicon Valley in particular, and STEM more generally, have anything to do with the sexism on exhibit at conferences? With “babes at booths” and enormous images of women in string bikinis? Except for the “apps” this sounds more like “Mad Men” industries of 50 years ago than the high - industry of the 21st century.

Women who laugh off the behavior of the "boys,” the declining percent of women, and their limited job categories and lower pay, may be facing yet another long fight for equality. Women tech leaders like Sheryl Sandburg at Facebook advise women to “lean in.” Union women, on the other hand, suggest that women learn to “lean together.” Women and men of the tech industry might just learn something from the labor movement today.

Fifty years ago, in 1963, President Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women, led by Eleanor Roosevelt, who was a long-time union member, and Esther Peterson, union leader and Assistant Secretary of Labor, issued a reportcovering action that needed to be taken for women in relation to education, employment, law, and politics. The report sparked many positive changes. While challenges remain, the good news is that today, women are now almost half of the workforce and almost half of the labor movement, with more success and more opportunities than ever before.

But union membership has declined from a high of 35 percent 50 years ago to just 12 percent of workers today, which threatens to roll back some of the rights women have gained. Unions are fighting to maintain their power, and women are key to the struggle. Rich Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, a stocky, firebreathing son of the coal mines, has a top leadership team that includes Liz Shuler, from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, who is the first woman and youngest person ever elected secretary-treasurer. At a recent AFL-CIO Convention in Los Angeles union members were joined for the first time by members from many social justice organizations including the National Organization for Women.

The labor federation represents 57 unions and over 13 million members, almost half of whom are women. According to the Department of Labor, union women earn more than non-union women, with median weekly earnings of $877 compared to $663 for non-union women. They are more likely to have health insurance, pensions and sick leave. They also have a voice at work. The new AFL-CIO Women’s Initiative calls for “equality in pay and opportunity for all; the right of women to control their own bodies and be free from violence; and the right of every woman to meet her fullest potential and the opportunity to serve—and lead—her community. Nothing less.”

Union women are speaking out about the need for protections for women and challenging discrimination. Randy Weingarten, president of the 1.5 million member American Federation of Teachers, supports the new inclusive measures being proposed by her union to expand labor’s voice and build labor’s strength for both public and private sector unions; not just for teachers, but for all workers.

Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the Taxi Workers Alliance, became the first person from a non-union workers center to be elected to the AFL-CIO executive council and speaks movingly of her organization’s struggles on behalf of immigrant workers and the need for taxi drivers to have basic protections at work. She gives one chilling example of a woman who was raped by her customers and left in the trunk of her taxi to die, only for her family to find that the taxi company cared most about her final month’s payment for the taxi. Domestic workers like Myrtle Witbooi, the South African chair of the International Domestic Workers Network, are giving powerful voices to workers who have been too often pushed aside and for whom strong unions can make a big difference.

Unions can't solve all the problems of women workers. The majority of low-wage workers are women, they are largely unorganized, and they often lack any kind of legal protections. Not nearly enough women hold leadership positions in their unions. A gap still remains between the wages of union women and union men, but often not because of unequal pay for equal work, but because many good paying union job categories have few women workers. Women in construction are a case in point. They remain just 2.5 percent of the trades. (The problems for tradeswomen are highlighted in a new art exhibit On Equal Terms, opening in New York City October 3).

The new AFL-CIO Women’s Initiative calls for “expanded job training and educational opportunities, including opportunities for women in non-traditional sectors.”  If the building trades unions are to match rhetoric with action they will be working closely with union tradeswomen to increase their numbers in skilled trades and with their union brothers to recruit and welcome them as the industry begins to rebound from the recession. They could set an example for the tech industry.

The labor movement has changed dramatically in the last 50 years, but much of it was not voluntary. The economy shifted, laws changed, employer resistance grew, women and men took on new roles. There is little question, however, that today’s unions know the importance of women and people of color to the future health of the economy and the labor movement. More women are learning that there is strength in unions. It seems that the high-tech companies still have lessons to learn. Treating their women workers and their women customers with respect and fairness will also be good business. Women in the high-tech industry might consider joining a union to resolve their unequal pay and opportunity problems. Perhaps they can create an app to call out sexism and reward respect in the 21st-century workplace.

Brigid O'Farrell

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Gender Inequality Labor Movement Sexism Tech Industry Wage Gap Women