This week, 2,500 people descended on Waterloo for Communitech’s second annual True North conference. This year’s theme was “Bridges, Not Walls,” focusing on how technology can connect citizens around the world. The event attracted speakers ranging from Recode’s Kara Swisher to Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web.
On the main stage, I moderated a panel on the #MeToo movement, which has empowered women to speak out against sexual harassment and abuse, and how it’s influenced the global tech industry.
The panelists had one key takeaway in common: technology itself is neither the problem nor the solution. The problem starts with people, and what they are taught is acceptable behaviour. Continuing to call out bad actors—and supporting those who speak out—keeps perpetrators accountable.
All three women brought unique perspectives to the table. As a small-business owner, Sue Britton, CEO of the FinTech Growth Syndicate, highlighted how non-disclosure agreements—which can allow companies to reclaim severance packages from women if they speak up about sexual misconduct they experience—can contribute to further silencing women. Catrena Norris Carter, an activist of 30 years and founder of Women United Now, said education on harassment against women should start at a young age from home, and be incorporated into schools’ curricula. Rakhi Tripathi—a professor who co-authored an article for The Independent on how technology brought #MeToo to India—noted that women living in rural areas can’t benefit from a tech-centred movement if they don’t have access to it.
While social media platforms have been a key medium in helping women organize, the companies that create those platforms have had their share of problems. It’s really only in the last two years that the tech industry has started to publicly address sexual violence in their workplaces, after Susan Fowler spoke out about her treatment at Uber in December 2017. It triggered the resignation of CEO Travis Kalanick, and a top-to-bottom overhaul of its company culture.
Since then, other tech companies have changed their policies. Microsoft ended its forced-arbitration policy in 2017. In November 2018, Google ended its forced-arbitration policy for sexual harassment following a 20,000-strong employee walkout.
Despite these changes, the women who lead these movements risk repercussions. For example, one employee who led the Google walkout left the firm in early June, citing retaliation from leadership. Google denies the allegation.
Social media platforms are powerful mediums that have changed the way we share information every day, and the companies that created them are under intense scrutiny because of it. But if equality isn’t embedded as a value in their own cultures, their products will inevitably reflect that, bringing into further question whether they will cause more harm than good to society.