Anita Hill: Class Actions Could Fight Discrimination in Tech

In the tech industry, women under 25 earn on average 29 percent less than their male counterparts. Women of all ages receive lower salary offers than men for the same job at the same company 63 percent of the time. They hold only 11 percent of executive positions at Silicon Valley companies and own only 5 percent of tech start-ups. Only 7 percent of partners at the top 100 venture capital firms are women. It is no wonder that the rate at which women quit tech jobs (41 percent) is more than twice as high as the corresponding rate for men.

By and large, women are the only ones distressed by such dynamics. Eighty-two percent of men working for start-ups agree that their companies already spend the “right amount of time” addressing diversity. Nearly half of women — 40 percent — disagree, saying inadequate time is devoted.

We can’t afford to wait for the tech industry to police itself — and there are few indications that it will ever do so. Consider what lawyers for Google said in May, in testimony in a suit alleging wage discrimination against women: It would be too burdensome for the company to collect data on salaries. Given recent Department of Justice moves to limit protections against gender and race discrimination, it’s hard to foresee serious government intervention coming from the current administration. Nor can we wait for bad press and shareholder class actions to force out negligent chief executives responsible for cultures of inequality.

Instead, women in the industry should collectively consider their legal options. Top among these would be class-action discrimination cases against employers.

The tech sector is not the first white-collar “boys’ club” to demand an industrywide correction. In the 1990s, Wall Street firms faced a slew of class-action discrimination lawsuits. Perhaps the most notable was the 1996 “Boom-Boom Room” case. A group of 23 women filed a class-action lawsuit against the Smith Barney stock brokerage firm, charging it with rampant harassment and gender discrimination. By the time Smith Barney settled the case for $150 million, nearly 2,000 women had joined the suit and helped expose a culture of sexism to the outside world.

As a result of this and other cases that similarly challenged systemic practices at other Wall Street firms, many of these companies now have more extensive human-resource policies addressing sexual harassment and gender discrimination. While pay and promotion discrimination…

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