Opinion by Preston Gralla

Tech’s peculiar relationship with social justice

Tech companies led the way in criticizing the anti-gay aspects of Indiana’s religious freedom law, but many of those same companies have a long way to go before achieving gender equity.

ellen pao1
Credit: REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

Tech giants including Salesforce, Apple and Yelp have been out front in their criticism of the new law in Indiana that allows businesses to discriminate against gay customers. That criticism is a good thing. Businesses have a role in not just selling things to people, but in doing good and in making sure that companies and the marketplace operate equitably. And it’s right that technology companies are leading the fight against the Indiana law, because tech is the most forward-looking of industries.

The industry’s outspokenness, though, came at an ironic time. One day after Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff criticized the Indiana law, a jury ruled that well-known venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Byers & Caufield did not discriminate against former partner Ellen Pao because of her gender. Whatever you think of the merits of that case or the ruling, it publicized something widely recognized: Women are treated unfairly in the tech world. And it shows that when it comes to issues of social justice, tech businesses need to pay as much attention to the gender issues inside their own companies as they do to protecting the rights of gay people.

The Indiana law couches its anti-gay sentiment in the thin veneer of religious freedom. The tech industry didn’t buy it, and its reaction to the law displays the good side of the industry. Benioff tweeted about his opposition to the law and said, “Today we are canceling all programs that require our customers/employees to travel to Indiana to face discrimination.” He then told Re/Code that Indiana might face a “slow rolling of economic sanctions” because of the law and added, “We run major marketing events and conferences there. We’re a major source of income and revenue to the state of Indiana, but we simply cannot support this kind of legislation.” Since then, Salesforce has canceled a conference scheduled for September in Indiana for a company it owns, ExactTarget, and moved the meeting to New York.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has also criticized the law, as has Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman, who said Yelp wouldn’t expand into Indiana as long as the law stood. He said, “It is unconscionable to imagine that Yelp would create, maintain, or expand a significant business presence in any state that encouraged discrimination by businesses against our employees, or consumers at large.”

When it comes to women’s issues, though, tech is a laggard, not a leader. I’ve written before about the boys-rule culture in tech. But the problems are deeper than just culture. Apple is a case in point. As of August 2014, only 30% of its workforce were women. A mere one out of the 10 top executives listed on the “Apple Leadership” page is a woman. Only two out of its eight board members are women. And when it comes to its board membership, Apple is better than most: Forbes reported in July of 2014 that only 7% of people on tech boards are women.

It’s not just Apple that underemploys women: The tech workforce is generally about 30% women. That’s true at Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Salesforce. Women employed in tech companies are paid less than men are. SmartAsset surveyed tech firms in 54 cities and found that women in tech companies are paid 86% of what men are paid.

Tech companies issue plenty of mea culpas about this. When Google published its diversity numbers and revealed that only 30% of its workforce were women, Laszlo Bock, senior vice president, People Operations, wrote, “We’re the first to admit that Google is miles from where we want to be — and that being totally clear about the extent of the problem is a really important part of the solution.” But the post didn’t reveal how Google planned to change things.

When Apple released its diversity report, Tim Cook said, “I’m not satisfied” with how few women the company employs. But no specific plan for doing anything about it was revealed.

Marc Benioff has at least made a practical attempt to do something. This March he said that he wants at least 30% to 50% of executives attending important meetings to be women.

Statements of intentions are certainly welcome. But they don’t replace action. Until the industry solves its gender problem, it has a long way to go before it can be said to be a champion of social justice.

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