SAN FRANCISCO -- Thousands of Google employees walked off the job on Thursday in offices spanning from California to Dublin in protest of the company’s handling of sexual harassment claims -- a powerful demonstration of the impact of the #metoo movement in the hyper-competitive and male-dominated tech industry.
The walkout, which took place a week after the New York Times revealed that Google had suppressed allegations of sexual misconduct against several of its executives, took aim at what organizers called a “culture of complicity, dismissiveness, and support for perpetrators.”
Managers, rank-and-file engineers, men and women participating in the walkout said they were demanding broad changes in how the company handles harassment complaints, and that they were protesting in solidarity with colleagues who had been victimized under the current system.
“The [Times] article provided a narrow window into a culture we, as Google employees, know well,” the organizers wrote in a blog post announcing the protest. “These stories are our stories. We share them in hushed tones to trusted peers, friends, and partners. There are thousands of us, at every level of the company. And we’ve had enough.”
In a statement emailed to The Washington Post, Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai said Google is supporting employees who choose to participate in the walkouts.
“Employees have raised constructive ideas for how we can improve our policies and our processes going forward,” Pichai said. “We are taking in all their feedback so we can turn these ideas into action.” A screensaver went out on corporate computers promoting the walkout, according to employees.
As the waves of #MeToo have broken out across U.S. industry, the movement’s presence in Silicon Valley has uncovered patterns of abuse, gender inequality and a hush-hush culture in an environment that aims to be progressive.
Google in particular is known for its individualistic culture in which engineers whose innovations are seen to bring enormous value to the company are rewarded with millions of dollars in payments -- even when they break the rules.
Andy Rubin, the creator of Google’s Android software, was reportedly paid $90 million when he left the company in 2014 after a sexual misconduct investigation deemed allegations against him were credible. Rubin denied the story in a tweet, saying it was “part of a smear campaign” to disparage him during a divorce and custody battle.
The Times story also exposed allegations of sexual harassment against Richard DeVaul, a director at Google’s parent company, Alphabet. DeVaul resigned Tuesday, the Times reported.
That unequal system stands in contrast to the values promoted to the rank-and-file, some of the protesters said, who spoke anonymously because Google had instructed them not to speak to the media. They said they were proud Googlers who came to the company believing in a longstanding “Don’t be evil” philosophy. They said their concerns were as much about sexism as they were about managers’ choices to protect powerful executives and demote or push out people who complain.
“We have all heard stories of women who have been pushed out while men have been elevated,” said one engineer at a San Francisco walkout.
“From the moment we get to Google, we are told we are special. Google is special and we want to retain that. We want to display our values,” said another protester who worked in sales.
The protest, called “Walkout for Real Change,” has five goals, including bringing an end to forced arbitration, improving processes for reporting sexual misconduct and reporting publicly on sexual harassment within the company.
In an essay published on the Cut, the seven core organizers of the protest said that over 60 percent of Google’s offices around the world were participating in the walkout, amounting to thousands of employees. The stories that appeared in the Times offered just a “narrow window” into tough realities of Google’s culture, they wrote.
“All employees and contract workers across the company deserve to be safe. Sadly, the executive team has demonstrated through their lack of meaningful action that our safety is not a priority,” the organizers wrote. “We’ve waited for leadership to fix these problems, but have come to this conclusion: no one is going to do it for us.”
Pichai, who was not chief executive at the time of the payments, responded to the Times reporting in a memo to employees in which he said Google had fired 48 employees, including “13 senior managers and above” for sexual misconduct in the past two years. These people had not been given payouts, Pichai said.
News of the walkout spread earlier this week, when BuzzFeed reported that a group of “200 engineers” were organizing a “women’s walk” to protest the revelations in the Times. Since then, the movement has spread. Early Thursday, the walkout’s Twitter account, @GoogleWalkout, shared photos of employees protesting at Google offices worldwide, including Berlin, Dublin, London, Singapore, Tokyo and Zurich.
“Employees have raised constructive ideas for how we can improve our policies and our processes going forward,” Pichai said. “We are taking in all their feedback so we can turn these ideas into action.”
The walkouts represent the latest instance of employees pushing back to hold Google’s leadership accountable. In June, Google opted not to extend its contract doing artificial intelligence work with the Defense Department after a wave of public backlash and employee resignations. In August, employees expressed outrage over the company’s plans to develop a search engine for China that would allow the government to censor results, with more than 1,400 employees signing an internal letter asking the company to establish an oversight process to review the China project and other plans that “raise urgent moral and ethical issues,” the Times reported.
Google is a high-visibility company, present in the daily lives of millions or more, and their power isn’t likely to be seriously threatened by the stories of rampant sexual misconduct or the walkouts alone, said Jeremy Robinson-Leon, president of Group Gordon, a corporate and crisis communications firm. But the company’s livelihood does depend on being able to attract talent that will help propel its products and projects forward — something it could struggle to do if it can’t prove its commitment to safety and transparency.
“If Google doesn’t make the changes necessary now and doesn’t meet the expectations of the people who are walking out today and the others who share those feelings, that could be a significant problem and would not be one that would just go away,” Robinson-Leon said.