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Tina Casey headshot

Tech Companies Are Helping Enforce Gender Apartheid in Saudi Arabia

By Tina Casey
Apple and Google have been accused of contributing to gender inequality in Saudi Arabia by allowing their smartphone platforms to host a government-run app that allows men to not only track women, but even prevent them from leaving the country.

Apple and Google have been accused of contributing to gender inequality in Saudi Arabia by allowing their smartphone platforms to host a government-run app that allows men to not only track women, but even prevent them from leaving the country. The result is another breach in public trust, and could complicate these companies' efforts to attract and retain talent in the coming years.

Once again, the world’s leading technology companies find themselves mired in controversy over their smartphone platforms’ hosting of an app that allows Saudi Arabian men to track and even control their female family members. This news comes at a time when much of the public still lacks trust in technology companies and younger workers want to work for brands they believe can make a positive difference for society – not move it backward.

After all, recruiting top talent is a rising motivation for businesses to grow strong corporate social responsibility (CSR) platforms. The reason is simple: businesses are increasingly tuning in to the value that workers are placing their employers' social responsibility.

Today’s talent also has more sophisticated expectations for corporate social responsibility. Racking up points for charitable giving and volunteer activities is not enough. These employees want companies to reflect their core values, too.

A new, academically rigorous study published earlier this month in Business Ethics reinforces the findings of other studies and surveys. The researchers concluded that employees are more committed to businesses that “ingrain CSR activities” into their vision and business model.

Corporate social responsibility and gender equality

One of those core values is gender equality, and the past two years have added potent new fuel to a simmering fire. The election of an admitted sexual abuser to the highest office in the United States, the impact of the #MeToo movement, women’s leadership in advocating for gun safety and the new wave of women in Congress are among the leading factors pushing gender equality to the top of the CSR list.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some recent news that should be very concerning to Apple and Google.

On February 1, Business Insider published an in-depth article about an app promoted by the Saudi government for use in controlling the movement of women. In a few reported instances Saudi women have hijacked the app to escape from the country’s “guardian” system, but essentially it is designed for guardians to prevent any unauthorized travel by women:

“Apple and Google have been accused of helping to ‘enforce gender apartheid’ in Saudi Arabia, by offering a sinister app which allows men to track women and stop them leaving the country.”

Both Google Play and iTunes currently host Absher, a government web service which allows men to specify when and how women can cross Saudi borders, and to get close to real-time SMS updates when they travel.

Since then, the story has snowballed. It began to gain traction after February 8, when Business Insider followed up on its earlier coverage with a shorter piece on its thisisinsider.com site. The article ran under this incendiary headline:

“Apple and Google accused of helping 'enforce gender apartheid' by hosting Saudi government app that tracks women and stops them leaving the country”

By February 13, The New York Times reported that Apple and Google were feeling the heat:

“A Saudi mobile application that lets men track and restrict the movements of women in the kingdom has come under increased scrutiny this week with an American senator and rights groups urging Apple and Google to remove it from their platforms, accusing the technology giants of facilitating gender discrimination.”

The senator in question was U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), who brought attention to the issue in an open letter addressed to Apple and Google:

“It is hardly news that the Saudi monarchy seeks to restrict and repress Saudi women, but American companies should not enable or facilitate the Saudi government's patriarchy . . .”

Why U.S. businesses need to step it up

Left unsaid in Senator Wyden’s letter was the reason why it is so important for American corporations to police their relationships with the Saudi government from a social responsibility perspective: because the U.S. government will not.

Last year’s state-sanctioned killing of Saudi journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi sparked a wave of criticism from the business community, but President Donald J. Trump refused to accept intelligence assessments linking the crime to Saudi Crown Prince and First Deputy Prime Minister Mohamed bin Salman.

Without leadership from the White House on a matter of international affairs, the business community was left dangling.

Still, the Khashoggi murder has continued to fester, and the infection has been spreading.

The murder brought renewed public attention to business ties between Saudi investors and Silicon Valley.

News of the Absher app piles on even more pressure for tech companies like Apple and Google to take control of this ongoing social responsibility conversation.

Earth to Google: move faster on gender equality, please

Google is especially vulnerable on issues of gender equality. Only two years ago an engineer at the company sparked a massive backlash when he posted an internal memo questioning the value of women engineers.

Last November, Google employees worldwide took part in an “unprecedented” walkout protesting the treatment of women at the company. Sexual harassment, misconduct, lack of transparency and workplace culture were among the issues behind the walkout.

Google had no comment on the Absher app initially. But by February 14 the company was changing its tune and pledged to investigate the matter.

Apple put on the spot

There are probably higher expectations for Apple to act, because the company has established some recent success with its gender equality initiatives.

That’s coming from the top. Apple CEO Tim Cook has placed gender equality front and center from a bottom line perspective, as demonstrated by an April 2017 interview published the Auburn Plainsman (the newspaper of his alma mater):

“I think the U.S. will lose its leadership in technology if this doesn't change,' Cook said. 'Women are such an important part of the workforce. If STEM-related fields continue to have this low representation of women, then there just will not be enough innovation in the United States.”

Last week Cook told National Public Radio that he was previously unaware of the Absher issue, but he only stated that the company “will take a look at it."

Losing the CSR narrative

American tech companies are already under fire for, among other issues, failing to control a wide range of hate speech directed at women and other abuses in popular social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

The lack of a strong, coordinated response to the Khashoggi killing is another black eye.

The Absher app cuts straight to the core of the tech sector’s commitment to gender equality. If Google and Apple fail to formulate a meaningful response, they could risk missing out on the next generation of innovators.

Image credit: Mojack Jutaily/Flickr

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey