Google Retaliation: the Epitome of Sexism in the Tech Industry

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On May 1, 2019, hundreds of NYC Google employees participated in an anti-retaliation sit-in to support two female co-workers, Claire Stapleton and Meredith Whittaker, who were demoted and punished after organizing and leading a massive worldwide walkout on November 1, 2018. The coordinated walkout, involving over 20,000 workers at 60 percent of all Google offices, protested the company’s handling of sexual harassment claims and demand for changes.

The walkout had been triggered by a New York Times article published on October 25th, 2018 detailing Google’s payout of a $90 million severance package to its leading executive Andy Rubin, the creator of Android mobile software that brought Google billions of dollars in revenue. What Google did not disclose was the true reason of his departure: Rubin had been accused of sexual misconduct by a female employee and the alleged transgression was found credible after an internal investigation.

Rubin was not the first top executive whose misbehavior was kept quiet by Google. There are two other senior executives who either received a generous departing package or remained in a highly compensated position after sexual misconduct allegations were filed against them. In all cases, the abusers moved on with their lives unscathed, while the victims became the collateral damage in the end.

It is worth noting that Google did have its sexual harassment policy and investigate every harassment complaint. The company claimed that in the past two years, over forty-eight employees including thirteen senior managers were terminated over sexual harassment charges without receiving any exit package. However, a few top-ranking officials with misconduct were apparently not subject to the same company policy. In fact, Google’s generous financial offering was part of separation agreement to prevent departing top officials to work for competitors and to avoid any potential legal battle. The trouble is that when a company got caught bending the rules and covering up executives’ misconduct to protect its own interest, it sent a clear and disheartening message to the entire workforce. Rubin’s sexual harassment case might only mark the tip of an iceberg of widespread sexual misconduct issues within Google. According to one of the Google walkout organizers, “What you read in the New York Times are a small sampling of the thousands of stories we all have.”

In response to employees’ anger and frustration, CEO Sundar Pichai acknowledged imperfect past and promised that Google will provide more transparency on how claims are handled, as well as give better and care to the people who raise them. Shortly after the walkout, Google announced a new set of policies about sexual harassment, aiming to reflect some of the protestors’ demands. It will now provide increased transparency on how those claims are handled, as well as making arbitration optional so misconduct claims can be taken to court if necessary. Yet, only months later, the retaliation claims started to surface. Stapleton was told that she will be demoted, removed from her project and even asked to take a medical leave. Whittaker was told that she would be forced to abandon her AI research work. While Google’s spokesperson denied the retaliation accusation, it is worth pointing out that Stapleton’s demotion was reversed shortly after she hired a lawyer. All of these suggested that even though the Google employee walkout successfully brought about some policy updates within the company, the real changes perhaps are far from becoming reality.

Google is not the only tech company that has the permissive culture on sexual misconduct. A 2018 Center for Talent Innovation study found that about one-third of the women who work in the tech industry had experienced workplace sexual harassment characterized by unwelcome physical advances or obscene remarks made by co-workers, and it is the second highest reported rate among eight white-collar industries surveyed. The tech industry is among America’s highest-paying and fastest-growing sectors, but also is one of industries that remains dominated by males besides of manufacturing and agriculture. A Pew Research Center study confirmed that women who work in male-majority industries are significantly more likely to report that sexual harassment is an issue at their workplaces.

Even in companies where strict policies are in place to penalize obvious and hostile sexual harassment, subtle, yet institutionalized sexism against women, such as earning less than equivalent male co-workers, being unfairly viewed as incompetent, and not being considered for promotion or important assignments, remains prevalent. Many Google employees complained that there has been a long history of pay and opportunity inequality problem at their workplace. A class-action lawsuit on gender pay gap allegations filed by a group of Google female employees against their company in 2018 is the evidence that systemic gender discrimination against woman is alive and well even in the most prominent tech company.

A recent report about sexism based on a survey of thousands of tech industry employees suggested that on average, 37 percent had experienced or witnessed sexism at work. While Google was in the spotlight of sexual harassment coverage, the reported sexist behavior was the lowest among other tech companies, at only 25.85 percent. Intel, with 59.38 percent of its worker reporting that they had witnessed or experienced sexism, represented the highest among all tech companies surveyed.

The toxicity from workplace sexism and sexual harassment takes toll on victims’ physical and mental well-beings and has negative implications on women career advancement in the tech industry. Because workplace sexism can be compounded by other factors such as an employee’s race, sexuality or parental status, it can be easily dismissed and deters victims from filing reports. Hence, sexual harassment remains unreported because of women fear repercussions. The retaliation faced by the two Critically, Stapleton’s and Whittaker’s experience only corroborates these fears.

Therefore, the question lies, if a high-profile tech company like Google was not a place of equality for women, and cannot even live up to a high moral standard itself, how can society and the education system inspire today’s young girls to study in STEM fields and encourage them to join workforce in the tech industry one day where there is rampant prejudice against women?

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Google Retaliation: The Epitome of Sexism in the Tech Industry. (2021, Mar 16). Retrieved from

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