By Kahini Iyer
n Thursday, at least 17,000 Google employees walked out of their jobs, all in protest against the tech giant’s handling of sexual harassment cases. It started in Tokyo, where employees walked out of their cubicles at 11.10 am. And Googlers from London to Singapore, from Dublin to right here in Hyderabad followed suit. Overall, 47 global Google offices, including its headquarters in Mountain View, California, stood largely empty.
The controversy began when a New York Times report detailed Google’s mishandling of multiple workplace sexual harassment allegations, particularly against major executives. The most notable was that of Android founder, Andy Rubin, who was accused of misconduct by another employee. According to the report, Google, after finding the allegation to be credible, let him go with a severance package of $90 million and hushed up the situation. Following Rubin’s firing, Google not only paid him a massive sum, but also invested in his new business venture. The NYT report also mentions two other high-level employees, who were fired after claims of sexual misconduct against them were investigated. Both left the company with multi-million dollar pay packages.
As we have seen during the last month of #MeToo allegations in India, Google’s inadequate, “chalta hai” response to workplace harassment is hardly shocking. Also it is not the first multinational to be mired in accusations of sexism in a notoriously male-dominated sphere. Shortly after Hollywood’s #MeToo, Silicon Valley faced its own crisis when scores of women surveyed reported that gender discrimination, unequal pay, and workplace harassment were the industry norm.
And hence the Google walkout is significant. It is not only a protest against the company’s handling of harassment cases but also its wage gap and opportunity inequity. They also demanded that an employee representative be appointed to the board. Google CEO Sundar Pichai has voiced his support for the walkout – not that he was left with much of a choice – and simultaneously tried to shift the blame to his predecessor, co-founder Larry Page, who publicly praised Rubin after his firing. For a company whose famous motto is “don’t be evil”, the optics of this debacle are even worse than their super-creepy Google Duplex demo back in May.
And this stands true for not only women at Google, but women across the globe.
And yet, this mass walkout invites the question: How can mere employees stand up to a multi-billion-dollar tech titan, whose quest toward world domination is unabated? This is, after all, an organisation that most software engineers would give an arm to join, only because Google, known for its endless employee perks and benefits, would likely give them a bionic replacement.
How hard must it have been for Google’s employees to risk their dream jobs and stand up to one of the world’s most powerful entities, only so that their colleagues have a better working environment?
It is this massive differential of power between the organisation and its workers that makes the Google walkout all the more extraordinary. All around the world, Google employees have stood shoulder-to-shoulder: men in solidarity with women, Indian workers alongside their American counterparts, bosses and managers not chastising their underlings for taking time off, but joining them in demanding better. Every one of the 17,000 plus people who protested, has told Google loud and clear, that no cushy bonus or free on-site gym, no amount of groundbreaking technology and innovative thinking, is enough to make them overlook the callous mistreatment of their colleagues.
And this stands true for not only women at Google, but women across the globe. Over the past year, women have done enough talking, gathering courage and speaking out against sexual harassers, writing testimonies on Facebook and Twitter, appearing before internal complaint committees. But despite that, men like Rubin continue to get away. It’s now time to push the needle on the #MeToo movement. And Google employees are leading the way.
In a Guardian column titled “After the Google walkout, is #Me Too about to get more militant?” Moira Donegan writes, “Women telling their experiences has raised consciousness, but it has not yet changed the fact that the world is run by men who are free to sexually abuse women with little consequence. The walkout offers one model for how the #MeToo movement might transition from talking to acting. Withholding labour, historically, has been a lot more effective in securing change than speaking the truth.”
The power of such a protest was seen as recently as last year, when women took to the streets in January last year to protest against the pussy-grabbing president. Around five million women around the world staged demonstrations a day after Trump was sworn in. In 2013, the massive protests after the Delhi gang rape forced India to amend its laws against rape.
This is the kind of activism that the #MeToo movement needs, enough to make companies rethink their sexual harassment policies and take cognisance of complaints. As our homegrown #MeToo movement progresses, slowly spreading its light on the festering rot of sexual harassment, perhaps we will also, someday, follow the lead of the Google walkout. We’ve said enough. Now is the time to walk the talk.
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