No doubt about it: This month’s massive Google walkout was an event for the history books. On November 1, more than 20,000 employees from offices around the globe stepped away from their regular routines to unite in protest, carrying signs and chanting slogans that spread like wildfire across social media. The Googlers were responding to a New York Times investigation, published in late October, that detailed the sexism reportedly endemic to the tech giant’s workplace culture. In essence, participants in the walkout were asking their employer to deliver on its iconic motto: “Don’t Be Evil.”
The protesters—many of them women, but some men, too—sought, among other things, a commitment to pay equity and to ending tolerance of gender discrimination in all forms. One woman, who declined to be identified by name but participated in the Mountain View strike, said she was “humbled” to see the support from her male coworkers, including senior management.
The gender parity of the protest brigade does not seem unconnected to its positive results: Google has since pledged to end forced arbitration in cases of sexual harassment and create more transparent sexual harassment reporting channels. It’s progress, but there’s more to be done, and some of the demands have yet to be addressed.
“By the time we get to protest, it means we have already failed a significant part of our employee population and customer base,” says Eric Pliner, the managing director at YSC Consulting, who regularly works on issues of equity within the tech industry. “What it says is that the only way people can get their voices heard is to bind together and protest.”
In other words: Companies need to find a way to be proactive instead of reactive, to stop waiting for a brewing revolt to boil over before they start rethinking policies and culture. At the same time, it seems Google is leaps and bounds ahead of other companies in terms of its willingness to respond to employee demands.
Lauren Leader-Chivée is an author and activist whose research focuses on equity issues in the workplace. She says that one reason Google jumped to accommodate protesters boils down to a simple fact: “When you look at the demand right now for high-skilled labor, it’s a war for talent, and companies know that.” High demand and low supply diminish the risk of protesting because it gives Google employees power to leverage.
Good for Googlers. And for Facebook staffers, who, in the wake of the walkouts, saw their own company’s binding arbitration policy deleted this week. Still, the question remains: How will higher bars being set in well-known Silicon Valley corporations become the rule of thumb everywhere else?
“The reality is: There were force in numbers at Google,” says Leader-Chivée. Another reality: Those numbers, and the fact that Google is a major player in our everyday lives, mean that the protests received overwhelming coverage in major outlets—a fact that reasonably incentivized them to staunch the issue as swiftly as possible after headlines hit.
“It is nearly impossible for stories relating to non-Silicon Valley unicorns to get attention, therefore these companies never have the reckoning the giants did,” says Megan Bigelow, the president and founder of PDX Women in Tech.
She adds that if smaller companies organized a protest with the same demands and grievances, that effort would largely go unnoticed.
In fact, most equity struggles in the workplace continue to go unnoticed. While it may be tempting to see Google’s policy shifts as a progressive bellwether, much of the workforce is still wondering when the #MeToo movement will make its way to their own places of employment.
“Another measure of equality is considering who among us is empowered to ask questions, and who among us have no option but silence.”
“When you look at the issues that service workers, hotel workers, home health aides—the most vulnerable women in society—they have remarkably little power to organize and remarkably little recourse,” says Leader-Chivée.
One woman I spoke with, who declined to be named for fear of retribution from her employer, works as a project manager in the construction industry. She said that it’s hard to imagine her small company responding to a list of equity demands seriously—never mind revising its policies to create a more equitable environment for all.
“At my company, the executive team has a meeting with each employee individually about progress over the past year before handing out Christmas bonuses,” she said. Last year, when she walked into her review, the owner of the company started the meeting by saying, “No sexual harassment!” He laughed. She was not amused.
“I guess he must have seen something about a #MeToo related story on the news and thought it was a funny joke to bring up with one of [his] few female employees?” Meanwhile, she is exhausted by the daily barrage of discrimination, feels powerless to stop it, and is considering leaving an industry she otherwise loves—while recognizing that even the ability to make that decision is a privilege that is not enjoyed equally. The path forward is being paved as we go. “People see progress and think: problem solved,” says Leader-Chivée.
But that’s far from the reality. Even the Google walkout organizers cannot declare victory: Only time will tell how the new policies are implemented in practice, and as of time of writing, several of the demands have still gone unaddressed. The good news is that, per the polls, millennials are a generation who prioritize workplace equality more than any of their predecessors, and they’re rising into positions of power that allow them to actually affect change.
“The belief in meritocracy has propelled Gen Y, if not most of Gen X, into this workforce, and when they find out it’s not, it’s a very rude awakening—and a mobilizer,” says Leader-Chivée. She believes that’s why we see more women rallying around feminism and workplace equity in their 30’s: It’s when they have advanced far enough in their careers to suddenly hit the glass ceiling.
“I do think that, as folks hit these old school barriers that are often largely held in place by entrenched folks who have an interest in holding on to power, they’re going to keep asking hard questions,” she adds. But perhaps another measure of equality is considering who among us is empowered to ask questions, and who among us have no option but silence.