More than 1,500 Google employees at 24 offices around the world say they are walking out on Thursday as a one-day protest against the company's handling of past sexual harassment and demanding changes for the future. The protests begin in the Tokyo office around 11 am local time, and circle the globe with employees walking out as the clock reaches 11 where they are.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai says he supports the protests. In an internal memo he said he planned to take action on some of the protesters' suggestions and that the company would alert manager's to Thursday's planned action "and that you have the support you need." But it's not clear whether Google will act on the protesters' single most important demand--to end its requirement for private arbitration to settle claims of sexual misconduct. Under that requirement, victims of sexual harassment and even sexual assault are barred from suing Google, and are often barred from ever discussing the incident outside the company by a confidentiality agreement. 

Google is serious about confidentiality--new employees have been required to sign a non-disclosure agreement that, among other things, forbids them from writing novels about working in a large tech startup. But, in a way, that same commitment to confidentiality caused its troubles in the first place.

Google is supposed to be one of the nicest companies to work for on the planet--its perks are legendary. And yet, when Susan Fowler published her now-famous memo on the sexual harassment that caused her to quit Uber, a former female engineer at Google responded to say she'd had nearly the same experience at Google. Sadly, at that time before the #MeToo movement had gathered steam, the point of her response was that it wasn't such a big deal and that you could expect pretty much the same treatment at any large Silicon Valley company.

Andy Rubin leaves with $190 million.

Things came to a head this week when The New York Times revealed last week that Google had protected the reputations of several highly placed men--as well as its own--by allowing them to leave quietly and paying them exit packages of tens of millions of dollars. The victims, as well as Google staff who knew of the situations, were forcibly silenced by confidentiality agreements. In just one example, according to the Times, Andy Rubin, who created Android, was a particularly bad offender but left Google with his reputation intact and a $190 million payout. 

There's an effect, though, when you force sexual harassment and assault victims to stay silent about what's happened to them. The effect is that, no matter how many free meals you hand out or how much day care you provide, you create a culture where women don't feel valued. That this is the culture throughout large segments of Google was made clear when Google engineer James Damore published a now-infamous memo arguing that the reason for the lack of women at Google was because of our biology and not gender bias. The thing went viral and the company fired him, but it was clear he wasn't the only Googler to think so. Google's work force is only 31 percent female; its executives are only 26 percent female, and the Labor Department has sued the company, saying there's a wage gap between women and men in comparable positions. 

Google has said all the right things in response to both Damore and these other accusations. Pichai sent out an email saying that the company had dismissed 48 executives in the past two years for sexual harassment and had not given them exit packages. Although that doesn't explain why Rubin was treated so lavishly, or why Richard DeVaul, another harasser named by the Times who took a job applicant with him to Burning Man and reportedly didn't hire her after she refused to sleep with him, kept his job right up until this week, when he abruptly left.

The problem is, when you keep victims quiet, when you make them sign agreements promising they won't tell, you enable a culture of harassment to continue unabated because such behavior thrives when not exposed to public view. This may be part of the explanation for the paucity of women at Google--when people find themselves in a hostile work environment, most will vote with their feet.

Pichai first responded to the Times story with a letter that listed all the things Google was doing to fight sexual harassment. On Tuesday, he followed up with a memo apologizing for the company's handling of sexual harassment and the pain it had caused. In the second memo, writes: "Some of you have raised very constructive ideas for how we can improve our policies and our processes going forward. I am taking in all your feedback so we can turn these ideas into action."

I hope that "action" includes ending the policies and processes that force those who've been harassed to keep things confidential. Because until that changes, all Google's other anti-harassment initiatives aren't likely to make much difference.

Published on: Oct 31, 2018
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