Tech’s “woman problem” is a power structure problem — and the solution is for the workers to organize.
Meet the new boss
Recent trending hashtag #tableflip2015 is styled as a movement. It has its own website, tableflip.club, which is a manifesto that looks square into the eyes of the tech industry and calls it a sexist asshat.
There’s a “leaky pipeline” problem in tech over which many hands are wrung and much tech columnist ink is spilled, wondering why women are trickling out of tech midway through their careers, and how to stop the attrition. The Tableflip Manifesto makes a damning diagnosis: “Women are leaving your tech company because you don’t deserve to keep us around.” It explicitly calls for the unfairly-branded “non-technical” women in marketing, HR, and QA to join up with the supposedly “hard-core” programmer types. It immediately follows that up with the widespread grievances of double standards in hiring, promotion, pay, resources, criticism, and unfair termination. It builds in intensity with each paragraph. “Finally!” thinks the female, tech-industry-weary reader (aka me), “People are getting it! I’m not alone anymore! We can find our collective power, we can…”
And then the last paragraph totally loses me. A manifesto ostensibly about “flipping tables” lays out its agenda, and that is… more tables. There are some vague nods to “organizing” without describing what that means. The specific action clearly described is, “… incorporating and fundraising for our own companies, and angel investing in other women who are building amazing things.”
…same as the old boss?
A clearly broken and unfair system needs to be torn down by… reproducing it with women in charge of more of the VC? I’ll forgive these frustrated women their optimism about companies with female founders necessarily being better, because there are so pathetically few that most of us have never worked for one. It’s easy to imagine that if only more women were in positions of power, things would be different and unfairness (or at least sexism) would be reduced if not gone.
In my experience, people who start companies because they were unhappy with their old ones tend to reproduce the toxic dynamics of their old workplace, but with themselves in charge this time. I don’t know if it’s because power corrupts or because people tend to fall back on what they know, but many founders seem unwilling or unable to break out of the norms and expectations of the industry — an industry that thoroughly and systemically devalues the work and expertise of managing and mentoring human beings.
A much more table-flipping notion is that of collective worker power. Tech is an industry where “job security” consists of how fast you can get another job if something happens to the one you have now, and where the solution presented to every worker is “go found your own company”. If every unhappy person founded their own company, there would be no one to work in all those newly-minted clone companies even if their founders were somehow able to avoid reproducing exactly the same dynamic they were trying to escape. The solutions presented to us at every turn, the same ones being dusted off and offered again by tableflip.club, are not adequate. They do not address the pervasive breadth and depth of the injustices that the tech industry not only creates, but financially benefits from. They do not scale.
A scalable solution
An industry-wide movement for worker organizing and collective action, led by and centered on the most vulnerable workers, is a real alternative. Women are in a unique position in the tech industry to lead worker organizing by turning those hollow “women’s networks” into genuine workplace justice organizations. The tableflip movement acknowledges that going to management with requests for workplace fairness is often fruitless at best, and can backfire spectacularly. We need to stop appealing to the very people who benefit the most from undervaluing us and exploiting our ideas, and instead appeal directly to our fellow workers.
So-called “casual” work environments, which prevail in tech at the moment, are hostile in their own ways to individuals challenging the status quo and therefore the image of the “cool, laid-back place that’s great to work at.” Effecting any kind of meaningful change in such an environment, whether it’s greater pay fairness or clearer job descriptions and promotion pathways, is going to have a much better chance of success if the workers come together to agree on requests, and present them as a unified group. A self-proclaimed “casual, friendly” boss can maintain the charade while ignoring or belittling demands from a few employees piecemeal, but the facade of a “chill” atmosphere becomes impossible to maintain while disregarding or rationalizing away the demands of the mass of the workers in a workplace. Management can no longer use the “not a team player” label on those agitating for improved compensation, greater transparency, or fair promotions when the team itself is united in those demands.
All of us together
This kind of organizing is hard work that requires a lot more patience than declaring “take this job and shove it” on your way out the door of the boys’ club, and patience is running low for women who have already been harassed, underestimated, underpaid, and underpromoted, who have seen prominent stories of women in other companies being fired, assaulted and smeared on social media for speaking up, all while the men they were hired alongside glide right by them on the glass escalator.
Any woman with the resources and inclination to exit the table where she’s not being served to set up a table of her own, has my encouragement and blessing. But that cannot be the end of it. Flipping the table for real means putting the bottom at the top. It means giving power to the workers: designers and developers, coders and architects, receptionists and marketers, copywriters and librarians, office staff and project coordinators, all together.