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Lessons from the Google walk-out: Why businesses need structural change to topple toxic masculinity

9 min read

05 November 2018

Editorial Director

Google staff walk out over treatment of women. What can UK SMEs learn from this? Do women still need to shout about equality in the workplace?

We live in a #MeToo world. Yes, there are injustices and inequality in the world. Yes, we’re more aware of these issues now than we’ve ever been in history. We’re also at a time where the impetus for meritocracy is on the rise. And more people are open and willing to talk about their experiences for the greater good.

Credit: Google Walkout for ChangeCredit: Google Walkout for ChangeCredit: Google Walkout for ChangeCredit: Google Walkout for ChangeCredit: Google Walkout for ChangeCredit: Google Walkout for ChangeCredit: Google Walkout for ChangeCredit: Google Walkout for Change

In the world of business, reports that Google employees around the world are staging a series of walk-outs made headlines. Why? Because even the tech behemoth known for its employee perks and values has fallen foul of the wrong side of the gender equality debate. Google employees are walking out of their well-stocked wellbeing-focussed offices in protest of how women are treated in the workplace.

Sexual misconduct, cover-ups and pay gaps: The story so far

More than 20,000 Google employees and contractors participated in a mass global walkout on 1 November to protest the company’s response to sexual harassment allegations against top dogs. According to the organisers of the protest who published a Medium post last week, at least 20,000 Google employees and contractors have participated in the walkouts across nearly 75% of Google’s global offices.

“We have the eyes of many companies looking at us,” Google employee Tanuja Gupta said in New York. “We’ve always been a vanguard company, so if we don’t lead the way, nobody else will.”

A recent investigation from The New York Times revealed that Android co-founder Andy Rubin was paid $90m upon his exit after the company learned of a sexual assault allegation against him.

“We walked out because tech industry business-as-usual is failing us. Google paying $90m to Andy Rubin is one example among thousands, which speak to a company where abuse of power, systemic racism, and unaccountable decision-making are the norm,” says Meredith Whittaker, the founder of Google’s Open Research Group.

“From Maven, to Dragonfly, to a $90M sexual harassment bonus, it’s clear that we need real structural change, not adjustments to the status quo.”– Meredith Whittaker

Drugged and shamed: Personal stories abound

During the #GoogleWalkout, a female employee recounted her personal story which happened during her time working at YouTube, part of Google’s empire.

Surrounded by fellow employees at the company headquarters in Mountain View, California, she recalled a team outing where a male colleague asked to switch drinks. That is her last memory of the night.

A team lead later told her that he saw her being led away from the festivities, and he had stepped in to take her to a safe place. She escalated this issue HR, but the official outcome was for her to remain on the same team as her harasser.

“The first thing that HR did was silence me. They made it clear that I was the problem,” she said. “I lasted on that team for three months. Every day, I went into work. I cried in the car for an hour, and I went into work and faced my harasser until I could not do it anymore, and I left that team.”

“Lot of empathy. Did anything change? No, I continued to be silenced,” she says. “I was told that Google was keeping silence for me, and thus I had to keep my silence, away from the press, away from my coworkers, I need to be silent. No more.”

This story and many others were shared at walkout rallies on Thursday.

“Google is famous for its culture, but in reality, we’re not even meeting the basics of respect, justice and fairness for every single person here,” says organiser Claire Stapleton.

Employee demands: 5 changes for structural change

Google employees are demanding five real changes rooted in transparency, accountability and structural change:

  1. An end to Forced Arbitration in cases of harassment and discrimination.
  2. A commitment to end pay and opportunity inequity.
  3. A publicly disclosed sexual harassment transparency report.
  4. A clear, uniform, globally inclusive process for reporting sexual misconduct safely and anonymously.
  5. A commitment to elevate the Chief Diversity Officer to answer directly to the CEO and make recommendations directly to the Board of Directors. And, to appoint an Employee Representative to the Board.

Organisers Claire Stapleton, Tanuja Gupta, Meredith Whittaker, Celie O’Neil-Hart, Stephanie Parker, Erica Anderson, and Amr Gaber published an essay in The Cut elaborating on the demands and the impetus for the protest demonstration, emphasizing that they are a small part of a grassroots movement.

“We are building on the work of others at Google who have been advocating for structural change for years. It’s their legacy and leadership that made this moment possible. We are a small part of a massive movement that has been growing for a long time,” O’Neil-Hart says.

On Friday morning, executives notified the organisers that Google CEO Sundar Pichai would be meeting with his leadership team today (Monday) to review a plan that would address the demands.

UK entrepreneurs react: What are the business lessons?

Hephzi Pemberton, founder of The Equality Group, questions why women still need to request equality in the workplace. “It is deeply upsetting that women still have to make formal demands for equal pay and opportunity, female representatives on the board and an end to forced arbitration in cases of harassment and discrimination,” she says. “There is so much discussion around equality for women within the world of work but we are yet to see notable changes.”

“Within the UK alone, the gender pay gap is set to be closed in approximately 55 years; an abysmal reality that perfectly describes the UK’s professional arena’s ability to invoke social change.”

The protests that Google are facing have highlighted that equality is a right and all businesses’ need to seriously consider if their diversity policies are effective.

Gemma Lloyd is the co-founder and CEO,Work180, an international job network connecting businesses with talented women.

“The list of formal demands from the Google employees is fair and is exactly the type of transparency organisations should be working towards–­ from exposing the pay gap figures year-on-year in the UK to the introduction of Equal Pay Ambassadors in Australia,” she says.

“We see much more action than just words when the diversity and inclusion role reports directly into the CEO ­and is not just a sideshow by HR personnel.” – Gemma Lloyd

She seems confident that real change can be driven from the grassroots level in this never-before-seen tour de force of employee activism. “The Google walkout has forced the firm’s chief executive to comment on the issue so hopefully change will happen,” Lloyd adds. “More companies need to take the treatment of women in the workplace seriously given that employees will no longer stay silent on unfair conditions.”

Watch this space for updates on the Google walk-out and what it means for UK SMEs.