From Sydney to New York, Google staff stepped away from their computers and staged a global walk out yesterday to protest the tech giant's treatment of women. Sam Forsdick speaks to a London employee who participated in the action

Google office

Nearly 17,000 people from 40 global offices participated in a planned walk out by employees of one of the world’s biggest tech giants yesterday – but why did Google staff walk out?


What was the Google Walkout?

The activist group Google Walkout for Real Change shared five demands it hoped would bring change to the way women are treated within the company. They comprised:

  • An end to forced arbitration in harassment and discrimination cases.
  • A commitment to end pay and opportunity inequality.
  • A publicly disclosed sexual harassment transparency report.
  • A clear, uniform, globally inclusive process for reporting sexual misconduct safely and anonymously.
  • Elevate the chief diversity officer to report directly to the CEO and make recommendations to the board of directors, as well as the appointment of an employee representative to the board.

The decision to take action followed a report in the New York Times, published on 25 October, which claimed Google paid Andy Rubin, the creator of the Android platform, an exit fee of $90m (£69m) after covered-up claims of sexual misconduct were made against him – instead of firing him after an internal investigation found the claims to be credible.

Rubin was one of three executives from Google’s parent company Alphabet that were protected by the company despite being the subject of sexual harassment allegations.


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#googlewalkout Google Headquarters – Mountain View, CA

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Commenting on the walkout, Google chief executive Sundar Pichai said in a staff email: “I understand the anger and disappointment that many of you feel.

“I feel it as well, and I am fully committed to making progress on an issue that has persisted for far too long in our society… and, yes, here at Google, too.”

London staff from the company’s offices in King’s Cross, Belgrave House and Central St Giles all participated in the Google walkout.

Here, a Google employee from the engineering division – who wished to remain anonymous – explains why they walked out.


Why did Google staff walk out? Turning talk into action

We walked out yesterday to raise visibility of the need for change within the organisation, specifically on Google’s policies on sexual harassment, the way that HR conducts its investigations and to support people that wouldn’t otherwise come forward.

There has been a lot of talk within the company but not a lot of action.

Because Google prides itself on being a leading employer in so many other ways, it seems weird that we are lagging in this respect.

I’ve been here for more than five years, and over the past couple of years there has been a lot more awareness, reflecting the change in society and people’s awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace.

There has been discontent with how these problems have been handled in the past and previously there have been a lot of well-meaning words said but not a lot of visible action.

This was a visible display from the employees and the scale of the display and the media coverage will help raise awareness.

So I think it is the most likely to result in action of any of the initiatives that have been so far.

This isn’t just a Google problem but we are in a position where we should be leading in terms of how we deal with this type of stuff as a company.


Why did Google staff walk out? Reaction to the New York Times article

The news that came out last week was a bit of a catalyst for people to take action and say, “we’ve been talking about this problem for long enough and now it’s time to hold leadership accountable to enact change”.

Why did Google staff walk out? Andy Rubin
Former Alphabet executive Andy Rubin is alleged to have been involved in sexual misconduct in a report in the New York Times (Credit: Youtube)

If you look at the New York Times article, it does reflect on a number of executive departures over the years.

Amit Singhal, the former vice-president of search, was one. That news came out last year so it shows that, over time, these issues have been continuing to happen and there hasn’t been a response that is likely to prevent them in the future.

We have five demands, which are all fairly reasonable, and if you look at other companies in tech, some are already met by other companies.

For example, Facebook and Uber don’t have forced arbitration and there are a number of companies where the chief diversity officer reports directly to the CEO so they have more power to enact change.


Why did Google staff walk out? Inside the Google offices in London

Before the walkout, Google employees gathered in an events space at one of the offices to talk about the issue as a group.

It’s difficult to say how many people there were overall but there would have been anywhere from 500 up to 1,000 people.

We couldn’t fit any more people in that room, it was jam-packed – people were even standing outside in the atrium area listening in.

Google employees weren’t really talking to the media and part of the reason we had the internal event was because the organisers wanted to have the responses from employees reflected to management.


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Google London, thanks for joining the #GoogleWalkout

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They were able to read some stories from employees in the local offices to raise awareness about some of the experiences these people went through.

Some of these stories were pretty intense.

They didn’t do that publicly because – even though they were anonymous – certain details could have identified the person to people they knew.

They didn’t want those stories to be shared to the media but they were okay with them being shared internally.

That’s why the full scale of the movement wasn’t as visible.


Why did Google staff walk out? A systemic problem within the culture

What we’re talking about isn’t one horrendous action, it’s more reflective of people that have gone through difficult experiences and haven’t received the support they should have.

It’s had an impact on their lives that go beyond the initial incident and shows the ongoing challenge they have faced to get support from HR, to have the matter resolved and the people responsible held to account.

That’s the theme here – it’s not one big issue, it’s more of a systemic problem with the way that these issues are dealt with by the company.


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Why did Google staff walk out? Reaction from management

The management team within London was very supportive – they were at the walkouts as well, including some of the very senior people in the office.

There’s support for the process but what we are yet to hear about is support from the executive level on taking action.

It’s not something that you’d expect to happen on the day – or day after – but it’s something we’ll hopefully get a response to in the coming weeks.

Now the executives can see the company feels this is an issue.

What the employees are now doing is asking for a response and accountability so that we have what are being called fireside chats or listening sessions – where people can go and put questions to the execs.

What people are now doing is asking, “What is your response to this? What is the action that is going to be taken?” and pressing them to give specifics.

That’s happening over the next week.