On the 1st of November 2018, Google employees around the world took a stand against sexual harassment and the actions of their superiors. A New York Times article recently alleged that Google incentivised the departure of Andy Rubin, one of Google’s top executives, and covered up allegations of sexual assault against him. In response, employees across the globe decided to peacefully protest in what is known as “The Walkout for Real Change”. The scale of this was remarkable, with over 20,000 Googlers getting involved. The walkouts began at 11:10 at Google’s Tokyo office, and was followed by Singapore and Israel with Swiss, German Irish and English offices getting involved at the same time in their respective time-zones. Protestors in NYC were seen sporting slogans “Worker’s rights are women’s rights” and “Time’s up tech” in an unqualified effort of employees holding their employers accountable.
The man at the forefront of this protest, Andy Rubins, is the founder and former CEO of Android - one of Google’s most significant investments. When Google acquired Android in 2005, he was promoted to senior executive, running their mobile operating system division and making Android a household name. Nine years later in 2014, he left Google to pursue other interests outside of the company. While the reason for his departure was concealed at the time, we now know that then CEO Larry Page requested Rubins’ resignation following sexual harassment and coercion allegations in 2013. The issue became more controversial still once it was released that despite this, Google presented Rubins with 90 million dollars, paid out over four years, with the last payment due next month. In essence, while Rubins’ send-off in 2014 was indeed made public, the claims of his sexual harassment were not. This gross lack of transparency is ironic given that Google’s namesake search engine represents a gateway to information.
Google was seen as rewarding Rubins’ behaviour and the mass protests earlier this month were a resounding cry against Google granting Rubins his exit package despite claims that were proven to be credible. This is not the first time this has happened, and Google seems to have a history of turning a blind eye to such claims within its organisation. Earlier this year in March, Loretta Lee, a former Google employee filed a lawsuit against Google for sexual harassment as well as wrongful termination following attempts to raise the issue within her company. Richard DeVaul, another senior executive who also recently resigned, has faced similar accusations over the years.
The size and veracity of the protest left top executives at Google with little recourse but to publicly acknowledge and endorse the event. CEO Sundar Pichai commentedthat “moments like this show that we [the company] didn’t always get it right, and so we are committed to doing better”. Traditional media and social media coverage also added to the power of this movement with the consensus being that Google severely mishandled and mismanaged the issue. In the wake of #MeToo and Time’s Up, Google could have stopped payments to Rubin. Instead, they stood in silent, implicit support.
Silicon Valley employees have a history of taking on activist roles, especially due to the widescale use of their work and the people it impacts. Amazon and Microsoft employees were seen standing against the federal government’s separation of migrant children earlier this year. Google is also no stranger to employee activism as employees opposed their artificial intelligence work being shared with the Pentagon. This eventually lead Google to choose not to renew their government contract.
Protests such as this one leave me optimistic. Since the public walkouts and the media coverage they received, tech companies have scrambled to alter their internal policies, lest they are lumped into Google’s category. Not only did Google overhaul their sexual assault and harassment rules to meet organisers’ demands, Facebook, eBay and Airbnb also ended their required arbitration regulations. Now, employees can directly seek a lawsuit instead of having to settle privately as was previously a necessary requirement. This comes as a warning to companies in the future that their employees hold them to a higher standard.
In today’s world where information is at the tip our fingers, the world is watching and judging and we’re not doing it silently.