To the feminists at Grace Hopper

Two women operating the ENIAC’s main control panel while the machine was still located at the Moore School. “U.S. Army Photo” from the archives of the ARL Technical Library. Left: Betty Jennings (Mrs. Bartik) Right: Frances Bilas (Mrs. Spence) setting up the ENIAC. Betty has her left hand moving some dials on a panel while Frances is turning a dial on the master programmer. There is a portable function table C resting on a cart with wheels on the right side of the image. Text on piece of paper affixed to verso side reads “Picture 27 Miss Betty Jennings and Miss Frances Bilas (right) setting up a part of the ENIAC. Miss Bilas is arranging the program settings on the Master Programmer. Note the portable function table on her right.”. Written in pencil on small white round label on original protective sleeve was “1108–6”. source: Wikimedia

This year I will attend the Grace Hopper celebration of women in computing for the first time. The Grace Hopper conferences — named after a computer scientist and member of the US navy who was a pioneer in computer programming — are an effort to “bring the research and career interests of women in computing to the forefront.” The computer science department at Stanford, where I’m a PhD student, funded me and five other female graduate students to travel to Orlando and recruit students to our program. In the past only a small minority of our graduate students have been women. But this has been changing with recent efforts by the admissions committee that has increased the population of non-male students to a third last year. I found this a worthy cause to lend my time and support to.

As I scrolled through the program, I noticed that many of the companies in the tech industry who are facing the greatest challenges of gender discrimination are the same ones with a prominent presence at GHC. It’s important to note that most cases of gender discrimination and sexual harassment happen on the ground, in code reviews, internal messaging services, promotion and pay decisions, investor meetings, and tech conferences. But at a management level it actually harms these companies to exclude half the population of potential engineers. In a neoliberal understanding of labor, widening the pool of workers makes economic sense for companies, particularly if a population of workers is systematically oppressed and can be paid lower wages.

As a feminist worker in tech, I often wonder what I can do.

The issues that we women face as engineers in silicon valley are important, but feminism does not just mean advocating for our own self interest. At its core, the problem is a systematic devaluation of female labor. As feminists have argued for a long time, emotional labor and care work is essential to the functioning of these high profit tech companies but is mostly undervalued and unpaid. That is why the people who do the often gendered work of content moderation, admin support, cafeteria workers, and custodians are paid less and often subcontracted with no benefits. Sometimes, our own work as engineers directly creates structures for work to be distributed as low pay contract work to others — remember the woman who drove for lyft on her way to the hospital to give birth? — at other times we are complicit.

This year as we go to the breakfasts, women’s lunches, and mixer parties, as we hand out our resumes and receive corporate swag, let’s not forget the power we hold collectively.

Let’s not forget that it’s wrong to place the burden of “leaning in” on the women who for the simple reason of not being in positions of power, cannot invite themselves to those positions.

Let’s not forget that Google has been accused of paying women less than men but has concluded that gathering wage discrimination data is too costly, and Uber has grappled with cases of sexual harassment within the company while drivers have said that they are paid less than minimum wage. Unfortunately, these examples are not the exception. They are part of larger, extremely troubling trends of labor within the valley; labor conditions that hurt the most vulnerable and take lives. A recent study by researchers at the University of California Santa Cruz found that between 19,000 and 39,000 contracted service workers are part of the invisible workforce in silicon valley and the work is tainted with gender and racial discrimination:

“While only 10 percent of directly hired tech employees are African-American or Latino, according to Silicon Valley Rising, nearly 60 percent of low-wage contract employees are members of these minority groups. And many of the lowest paid workers are women of color serving food to the predominately white, well-paid tech employees.” [Salon, 10/2017]

Let’s demand that to use our labor, these companies have to make a commitment to us that lasts longer than a weekend. Let’s organize to demand equality, fair pay, and paid maternity care for all women, the programmers, the cafeteria workers, and the Uber drivers.