The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The probe into Google’s alleged gender pay gap just hit a snag

(Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

The Labor Department will not get access to the full details it has requested on 21,000 Google employees as part of its investigation of equal pay, an administrative law judge has ruled, saying that the agency's demand for data is too broad and could violate workers' privacy.

The provisional ruling blocks efforts by officials to prove what they have called a “systemic” pay gap at the online search giant between men and women, allegedly uncovered during a routine contracting audit. The decision, which must still be finalized, could mark a victory for Google, which denies having paid women less than their male counterparts.

Friday's decision by Steven Berlin, the judge overseeing the case, said that Labor did not explain convincingly why it needed extensive data on Googlers, including their names, addresses, telephone numbers and personal email addresses. The Labor Department had already requested that Google provide information about workers' dates of birth, education, performance ratings and salary histories, among other details.

Allowing the Labor Department to obtain all the data it seeks could expose innocent Google employees to identity theft, fraud or other mishaps in light of recent government data breaches, Berlin said.

“Anyone alive today likely is aware of data breaches surrounding this country’s most recent Presidential election,” he wrote. “The Department of Labor [...] was recently attacked with ransomware. The same has occurred at other government agencies and private businesses. Ransomware being used internationally is reportedly derived from tools hacked from our national security agencies. This Office (OALJ) has been hacked.”

The Labor Department should move more slowly and deliberately with its investigation, Berlin added, rather than demanding data in bulk while offering “nothing credible or reliable to show that its theory [... is] anything more than speculation.”

Still, the Labor Department audit may continue with a more limited set of employee records, Berlin wrote, prompting the agency to celebrate a partial victory.

"The court’s decision vindicates [the] vigorous enforcement of the disclosure and anti-discrimination obligations federal contractors voluntarily accept in exchange for taxpayer funds,” said the department's regional solicitor, Janet Herold, in a statement Sunday.

The 43-page decision could be finalized by as soon as the end of the month if an appeal is not filed in the coming week.

Critics of Silicon Valley have drawn fierce attention to its lack of diversity and its tendency to marginalize minorities and women, at times highlighting cases of unwanted sexual advances from male co-workers or refusals by management to address toxic workplace culture problems. Susan Fowler, a former engineer at Uber, helped renew the scrutiny facing tech companies after writing a blog post alleging that Uber ignored chronic complaints about her boss. Uber has since undergone a rapid transformation with the departure of key executives including its chief executive, Travis Kalanick, but many argue that the company's problems are reflected in the rest of the technology industry.

Under pressure to hand over data that could prove the existence of a gender wage gap, Google has balked at some of the Labor Department's demands, at one point arguing that it would be too costly to produce the information. The Internet company has complied with other, earlier requests by the agency.

On Sunday, Google said in a blog post that the government went too far when it asked for wage data stretching back more than a decade.

“Assuming the recommended decision becomes final, we’ll comply with the remainder of the order, and provide the much more limited data set of information the judge approved, including the contact information for a smaller sample of up to 8,000 employees,” wrote Eileen Naughton, vice president of people operations at Google.