The #MeToo movement, seeking to shift the balance of power from predatory elites to common workers, is facing new institutional backlash. After thousands of Google employees and associates organized a walkout protest against sexual harassment, which forced the company to end its secretive practice on “forced arbitration,” internal emails obtained by Wired suggest that key organizers have been punished by their employers for their activism.
Claire Stapleton, a marketing manager at YouTube, claims the company demoted her from her position after the company forced her to take a medical leave of absence (despite having no signs of illness). Meredith Whittaker, an artificial intelligence researcher, claims the AI ethics team was completely disbanded after she was reassigned to an unspecified position within Google. When ethics concerns were raised with Google’s human resources department, a supposedly independent watchdog, the punishments only escalated.
These workers, despite their decades of committed work for Google, were tossed aside once they joined five other women in organizing against corporate exploitation, resulting in 20,000 employees across 50 cities issuing their demands for change. “My manager started ignoring me, my work was given to other people, and I was told to go on medical leave, even though I’m not sick,” Stapleton wrote. “Only after I hired a lawyer and had her contact Google did management conduct an investigation and walked back my demotion, at least on paper. While my work has been restored, the environment remains hostile and I consider quitting nearly every day.”
Google’s response is the standard PR denialism. “We prohibit retaliation in the workplace and investigate all allegations,” a Google spokesperson told the publication. “Employees and teams are regularly and commonly given new assignments, or reorganized, to keep pace with evolving business needs. There has been no retaliation here.” Whittaker and Stapleton, however, claim the backlash “isn’t always obvious” due to the plausible deniability surrounding their project terminations and demotions. Considering the movement cultivated by these employees, Google leaves a lot of room for questioning.
Their activism wasn’t some side project which painted Google as just another big tech blockhead, but instead a predatory entity willing to bend the rules to protect potential harassers within their ranks. The walkout was a direct response to The New York Times article showing exit packages were made to male executives accused of sexual harassment.
“We collected over 350 stories after this article,” the organizers wrote, “and we discovered a sad pattern: People who stand up and report discrimination, abuse, and unethical conduct are punished, sidelined, and pushed out. Perpetrators often go unimpeded, or are even rewarded.” This included the $90 million to Andy Rubin, the former creator of the Android phone, accused of forcing oral sex on a female subordinate under threat of termination.
Although Rubin denies the allegation, a revealed Google investigation found the claim “credible” leading to his on-paper dismissal. It wasn’t until the protest that he was kicked off Google’s payroll. After the story broke, both Sundar Pichai and Larry Page, the current CEO and co-founder of Google, were forced to apologize in a company email and revealed an additional 48 Google executives were forced to leave over sexual harassment. They claim none of these employees received payouts, though we’d forego judgement on that until seeing some sort of evidence.
“Google has a culture of retaliation, which too often works to silence women, people of color, and gender minorities,” Whittaker writes. “Retaliation isn’t always obvious. It’s often confusing and drawn out, consisting of icy conversations, gaslighting, project cancellations, transition rejections, or demotions. Behaviour that tells someone the problem isn’t that they stood up to the company, it’s that they’re not good enough and don’t belong.”
So if we’re to believe Google, the company notorious for illegal user surveillance, secret Pentagon contracts and admitted protection for sexual harassers, why the sudden demotion reversal against the whistleblowers?
If it’s true that Google conducted an investigation and found unjustified conduct, surely releasing these details to the public would either clear their name or add some necessary context. We can’t just assume a highly controversial company made an oopsie by demoting the wrong Claire Stapleton and Meredith Whittaker — responsible for their media crises surrounding #MeToo and AI — from the wrong marketing and AI ethics teams. There’s no reason for their workers to lie when they’re wondering if their jobs still exist after poking the bear of management.
There’s plenty for employees to poke at. In April 2018, over 3,000 Google employees protested Project Maven, that controversial Pentagon contract where their technology was used for drone programs that could potentially identify and kill human targets. This lead to over a dozen resignations and Google forfeiting the $10 billion contract after the PR backlash. Amazon has since taken over the production.
In August, another investigation from The Intercept showed Google employees were concerned with Project Dragonfly, the censored search engine for Chinese officials used to track user locations and share search histories with the government. This lead to over 1,400 Google employees signing a letter demanding more transparency and accountability about the project, meanwhile, Google has completely denied its existence. It’s unclear how much the project costs, though China would definitely pay a pretty penny for more surveillance abilities over their citizens, at least if their latest mass-scale detention of Muslims is anything to go by.
As employees begin to understand the value of organization, despite tech workers holding no union protections, it seems executives are also seeing the value in silencing workers. Why should we take the word of Google when it comes to retaliation? There’s a clear vested interest in being the “don’t be evil” king of Silicon Valley, but the same can’t be said of workers who want more knowledge of their field and protections in the face of corruption.
Employees themselves view dissent as career suicide, often revealing company malpractice under the condition of anonymity. “The article only provided a narrow window into a culture we, as Google employees, know well,” wrote organizers wrote in an essay published the morning of the protest. “These stories are our stories. We share them in hushed tones to trusted peers, friends, and partners. There are thousands of us, at every level of the company. And we’ve had enough.”