Anita Hill: It's Time for Women in Tech to Sue for Equality

Professor Anita Hill speaks at a panel discussion during Time Magazine's Person of the Year Lunch on Nov. 8, 2011, in New York City.  (Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Time)

Women in tech need to be more proactive in how they take their companies to task on sexism and gender inequality -- including filing lawsuits, lawyer Anita Hill told KQED on Tuesday, in response to a senior engineer's controversial memo condemning Google's diversity initiatives. Hill is a professor of social policy, law, and women's, gender and sexuality studies at Brandeis.

The engineer who wrote the memo, James Damore, was fired late Monday. In the memo, he wrote that "biological causes" are part of the reason women aren't represented equally in Google's tech departments and leadership. Damore also said men have a "higher drive for status."

Hill, who made national headlines in 1991 for accusing her former boss Clarence Thomas -- then a U.S. Supreme Court nominee -- of sexual harassment, said women have to lead the charge to change the culture in tech. For her, that means legal action.

“I’m hesitant to put more on women but I believe that there are some people ready to take that step, and when some step forward to file a complaint, others will join," she said. "That’s really been my personal experience."

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In a New York Times opinion piece published Tuesday, Hill outlined what she sees as the most effective ways for women to combat sexism, gender inequality and arguments like Damore's.

"We can’t afford to wait for the tech industry to police itself — and there are few indications that it will ever do so," she wrote. "Women in the industry should collectively consider their legal options. Top among these would be class-action discrimination cases against employers."

In the last few years, women have filed discrimination lawsuits against several tech companies. Many of these cases are ongoing.

"I expect there will be co-workers who say you should be grateful to have this position. I think those are the most damaging feedback women can get. Dismissal by their co-workers," Hill told KQED.

She also noted the emotional toll that lawsuits can take. After she accused Thomas of sexual harassment, he denied all wrongdoing and was confirmed to the high court. Hill was ostracized.

"I have no answer to the problems that’s easy or quick," she said. "But for those who have gone through the process it can be fulfilling and empowering."

Despite the lawsuits, women have a vastly marginalized position in tech. Among other things, they are underrepresented by a large degree and receive less pay than their male counterparts.

Adriana Gascoigne, CEO of the nonprofit S.F.-based Girls in Tech, said she agreed "100 percent" with Hill's assessment that women needed to pursue individual and class-action lawsuits to push back against sexism and inequality in tech.

Yet other women weren't convinced lawsuits would always be the best route for pushing change in tech.

"That may be necessary but not sufficient," said Elizabeth Ames, senior vice president at the Palo Alto-based Anita Borg Institute, an advocacy group for women in tech.

One thing that's clear, however: The focus should be on the work and value that women are contributing to tech and not on a memo written by a man, she added.

"There are many senior-level executive technical women at Google today who are doing fantastic work and we don't really hear much about them," Ames said. "Instead, we're wasting time talking about this guy."