A few minutes before 11:10 a.m. EST on the morning of 1st November, the warm autumn sun beat down on the facade of Google’s New York City headquarters. A silent sea of reporters surrounded the gold entrance, watching as the first Google employees began to trickle through the front doors, walking out in solidarity with thousands of colleagues from Google offices around the world.
One woman, who works in Google’s engineering department, marched down West 15th Street carrying a large white sign that read “Happy to quit for $90,000,000 — no sexual harassment required.” When asked her reasons for walking out of work today, she requested to remain anonymous, but did not mince her words: “I want transparency in sexual harassment cases and how they’re handled,” she said. “They’re slashing a lot of perks and benefits for employees and then we find out that they’re paying a $90-million payout to somebody who was known to be a sexual harasser. It strikes me as unfair.”
The Google walkout comes on the heels of a New York Times article that exposed the tech behemoth’s history of discrimination, sexual harassment, and support of abuse and abusers at the company. One of the most shocking anecdotes in the story was of Andy Rubin, the creator of Android, who reportedly received a $90-million exit package despite a history of sexual misconduct.
While the exposé destabilised many perceptions of Google’s culture, the aftermath tells, perhaps, the more crucial story. A group of seven core organisers — who decided they’d had enough of this toxic culture — took matters into their own hands and organised a walkout. They are asking Google executives to respond to five specific demands: An end to forced arbitration in harassment and discrimination cases; a commitment to end pay and opportunity inequity; a public sexual harassment transparency report; a clear and inclusive process for reporting sexual misconduct safely and anonymously; and to promote the chief diversity officer to answer directly to the CEO and make recommendations directly to the board of directors. In addition, they want an employee representative appointed to the board.
These latest incidents at Google are not isolated. In fact, the tech giant has a long history of problematic incidents pegged to sexism and inequity. The company has previously come under fire for pay inequity, accused of systematically underpaying women workers, and even facing discrimination charges for unequal pay. In August 2017, Google engineer James Damore published a viral memo filled with sexist rhetoric and complaints about Google's diversity policies, claiming the company suffered because it's an ideological echo chamber. And in the summer of 2015, Erica Baker, who then worked as a Google engineer, made headlines after she shared she organised an internal spreadsheet documenting employee salaries to highlight the company's pay gap.
As of yesterday, roughly 1,500 individuals had planned to walk out of company offices around the globe, according to the New York Times. But, judging by New York City’s turnout, this was likely an underestimate. By 11:15 a.m., a steady stream of Googlers carrying signs and donning branded Google apparel began pushing down Eighth Avenue. The vast majority of the men and women remained tight-lipped, declining to comment on their motivations for participating. As they rounded the corner onto West 15th Street, the throng advanced toward Hudson River Park's 14th Street Park where a massive crowd convened. The park was quickly at full capacity and attendants diverted the protestors into an overflow area adjacent to the park.
Inside the park’s gates, a throbbing mass of Google employees gathered around a small group of women organisers. They stood on chairs and shared their views through a loudspeaker. Among them was Meredith Whittaker, one of the walkout’s core organisers.
“I am here because what you read in the New York Times are a small sampling of the thousands of stories we all have, the thousands of stories we carry for each other, the thousands of instances of abuse of power, discrimination, harassment, and a pattern of unethical and thoughtless decision-making that has marked this company for the last year and that has marked our culture and scarred so many of us,” Whittaker said to the crowd. “This is it. Time is up. We’re just getting started, and we want to bring all of you along with us.”
As the speeches concluded, the crowd erupted into a chant — “Time is up, time is up, time is up!” — before beginning to disperse. And, indeed, the words “time is up,” are very much in line with the crux of the countless movements and protests that have taken place in the last twelve months. One year after the #MeToo movement first destabilised U.S. and global status quo around sexual misconduct in the workplace and in society at large, Google is now experiencing perhaps its largest scandal to date. The question is: How will this tech company respond to their employees’ concerns and will there be any real change?
Google declined to comment on the walkout, saying "it’s a grassroots movement,” and at time of writing, Refinery29 had not yet received comment from organisers. But, inside Hudson River Park, Demma Rodriguez, head of equity engineering, had no shortage of words to share. Rodriguez said today’s numbers suggested that people care and want to usher in progress. But it’s not enough to participate in a single act of solidarity and protest, Rodriguez made it clear that what she hopes for is long-lasting, structural change.
“Everyone at Google should be able to stay safe,” Rodriguez said. “I said in my remarks, and I meant it: Every single person who shows up to work at Google is an equal member of our community and deserves to be respected, protected, and safe at work.”
Rodriguez went on to speak of complacency, specifically that the power of a few executives should never eclipse the safety of all. She added that she hopes the public knows that there are many members of the Google community working hard to fix, bring attention to, and prevent these abuses of power from reoccurring.
“We have very clear values about respect. It’s absolutely critical that the world understands that we take those values seriously,” Rodriguez said. “We want to make sure and make clear that our communities within Google want this to change, expect it to change, and in many ways demand it to change.”
As she spoke candidly about Google’s problems, colleagues began to gather around Rodriguez, nodding along with her words. Though she was the one to speak these words, it was evident that she spoke not just for herself, but also for the many who chose to — or felt they had to — stay silent: “We’re going to have to get it right,” Rodriguez said. “Because that is what the world expects of us. And most importantly, that is what we each should expect of ourselves.”