Two women who helped organize a massive global walkout from Google offices last year over the firm’s handling of reported sexual misconduct allege they’re now being punished for their activism, according to a new report.
Thousands of Googlers around the world walked out of their offices in November for rallies protesting the way the company addressed incidents of sexual harassment and misconduct, including a $90 million golden parachute for Android operating-system creator Andy Rubin, who has denied allegations that he forced sex on an employee.
Now, two of the seven organizers have written an internal memo claiming Google has moved against them in response to their activism, according to the report.
The company said it has a strong policy banning retaliation against employees who raise concerns or support others’ concerns, and that it investigates all allegations of retaliation. Workers have multiple channels for reporting claimed retaliation, including anonymously, Google said. The firm did not retaliate against the two walkout organizers, it said.
Meredith Whittaker, a prominent artificial-intelligence research leader at Google who helped create a New York University AI institute, said her trouble started after the firm on April 4 dissolved a new AI ethics council amid a furor over a right-wing member on the group’s board.
“I’m told that to remain at the company I will have to abandon my work on AI ethics and the AI Now Institute, which I co-founded, and which has been doing rigorous and recognized work,” wrote Meredith Whittaker, in the memo obtained by Wired magazine.
“I have worked on issues of AI ethics and bias for years, and am one of the people who helped shape the field looking at these problems. I have also taken risks to push for a more ethical Google, even when this is less profitable or convenient.”
It was not immediately clear how Whittaker responded to the purported demands by Google that she stop working on AI ethics and the AI Now Institute. Walkout organizers did not immediately answer a question about her response or make her available for an interview.
Claire Stapleton, a marketing manager at Google’s YouTube and longtime employee, wrote in the memo that two months after the walkout she was told she’d be demoted. She claimed she then went to HR and a company vice president, which worsened her situation.
“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.”
The allegations from the two women reflect a broader problem, Stapleton wrote.
“Our stories aren’t the only ones. Google has a culture of retaliation, which too often works to silence women, people of color, and gender minorities,” Stapleton wrote, adding that walkout organizers had collected 350 employee stories.
“A sad pattern emerges: People who stand up and report discrimination, abuse, and unethical conduct are punished, sidelined, and pushed out,” Stapleton wrote. “Perpetrators often go unimpeded, or are even rewarded.
“By punishing those who resist discrimination, harassment, and unethical decision making, Google permits these behaviors.”
Google, asked about the two workers’ claims, said employees and teams are often given new assignments or reorganized, to meet business needs.
“There has been no retaliation here,” a spokeswoman said.
In the wake of the walkout, Google said that it had fired 48 employees for sexual harassment in the previous two years, giving none of them severance. It also eliminated forced arbitration in sexual-harassment cases.
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