The Google Walkout to Protest Sexual Harassment: How Change Is Happening in Silicon Valley

Daisuke Wakabayashi, Erin Griffith, Amie Tsang, and Kate Conger of the New York Times report that Google employees organized the walkout in less than one week to protest the company’s handling of sexual harassment. Employee discontent had been simmering for quite some time over the inequitable treatment of female employees, but it boiled over when the New York Times reported that Google had given an executive, Andy Rubin, a $90 million exit package after finding sexual harassment claims against him credible. The release of this information led to calls for a walkout. Demands for change in how Google handles sexual harassment included the following:

  • End the use of forced arbitration, which silences victims and protects abusers.
  • Publish a transparency report on cases of sexual harassment.
  • Further disclose salaries and compensation.
  • Ensure employee representation on the company board.
  • Appoint a chief diversity officer who speaks directly to the board.
Noam Scheiber writes that the most remarkable aspect of the Google walkout was the way the organizers identified their action with a broader movement throughout the United States including teachers, fast-food workers, and others. The tech sector has never before identified with unions or unionized workers because compensation in the field is relatively high. While Google has methods in place to allow employees to communicate with senior management, Scheiber notes that some tech employees have come to realize that having a platform for the unregulated exchange of ideas does not result in lasting change. They have now experienced the sense of agency and power to affect decision making that can come when twenty thousand people walk out of a company together, impacting productivity and the organization’s reputation. Because competition for talent is fierce in Silicon Valley, a walkout can negatively impact an organization’s ability to recruit, putting other tech companies on notice as well. Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times notes that protests are now an important avenue for pressure that is likely to create lasting change in Silicon Valley and the technology sector. On November 8, 2018, Conger and Wakabayashi reported ( that Google agreed to the following:
  • End the practice of forced arbitration.
  • Overhaul reporting practices for sexual harassment.
  • Provide more transparency.
Facebook followed Google’s lead and dropped mandatory arbitration clauses one day after the Google walkout. Why do these changes matter? Wakabayashi and Jessica Silver-Greenberg of the New York Times explain that until now, harassment has often gone unpunished due to forced arbitration clauses included in the fine print of most employment contracts. As a result, claims are kept secret to protect the abusers and the company’s reputation. Victims receive smaller settlements than would be the case in open court, and harassers can easily move to other jobs without warning to future victims. In this way, companies keep their employees and the public in the dark about bad behavior. Arbitration clauses were put in place to prevent employees and customers from banding together in class-action lawsuits to fight deep-pocketed corporations over unfair business and labor practices. While the focus at the moment is on sexual harassment and assault claims, these arbitration clauses exist in the fine print of contracts of all sorts. But class-action lawsuits and protests are the best ways to bring pressure for change. Microsoft and Uber both changed their policies on forced arbitration clauses earlier this year after facing proposed class-action suits from women. Apple, reading the tea leaves of change, also eliminated the clause from employment contracts a few months ago. Collective action is an important avenue for change. It is good to see Silicon Valley employees discovering the power that they have to create more ethical and inclusive organizations.   Photo courtesy of Yoel.]]>

Sexual Harassment and Gender Discrimination in Silicon Valley: Has There Been Any Real Change?

Several high-profile cases in the news in recent months seem to reflect attitudes about the treatment of women changing for the better in Silicon Valley. These are the most notable examples:

  • Dave McClure, the founder of the start-up incubator 500 Startups, resigned after admitting to sexual harassment. Later investigation revealed that the company had covered up an earlier sexual harassment charge against him by keeping the investigation confidential.
  • Binary Capital imploded after several women lodged sexual harassment charges against Justin Caldbeck.
  • Uber CEO Travis Kalanick resigned after former company engineer Susan Fowler published a blog detailing a history of sexual harassment at Uber.
  • Most recently, Mike Cagney, the CEO of online lending start-up Social Finance (SoFi), has been fired. For a long time, SoFi’s board of trustees turned a blind eye to complaints from employees about Cagney’s inappropriate behavior until multiple employees filed a lawsuit accusing him of sexual harassment and of “empowering other managers to engage in sexual conduct in the workplace.”
These public firings could reflect changing attitudes—but Ellen Pao cautions us against assuming that real change has happened yet. Who is Ellen Pao? Jessica Bennett, writing for the New York Times, explains that Pao forced the door open to reveal sexual harassment and gender discrimination in Silicon Valley technology and venture capital companies when she filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against her employer, the powerful venture firm of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, in 2012. Her lawsuit claimed that she had not been promoted because of gender discrimination and that she had experienced retaliation for complaining. She produced written performance evaluations and performance reviews that gave her high ratings. Nonetheless, she was passed over for a senior-level promotion because, she was told, she was both too passive and too pushy. She was also told that she was not promoted because she did not speak up enough in meetings and because she was too opinionated in those same meetings. Really? When she complained, she was attacked. While Pao did not win her lawsuit, she blazed a trail for other women who began to come forward and speak out about sexual harassment and gender discrimination in their workplaces. Pao writes that the real movement forward is that women are now speaking out and telling their stories and that women and their male allies are beginning to join together to file lawsuits to force boards to act. Pao cautions, however, that superficial public apologies and one-off public firings do not fix the company cultures that support bad behavior toward women and other underrepresented groups. Pao notes, “Most companies don’t address the great underlying problem: the exclusion of and biases against women, people of color, older employees, disabled people, L.G.B.T.Q. people and many other underrepresented groups.” She suggests that serious culture change will happen only when corporate leadership achieves these five goals:
  • Leaders make hard decisions to hold themselves and their teams accountable for their behavior across all activities in the organization.
  • Leaders are willing to have uncomfortable conversations.
  • Leaders are willing to fire those who are unwilling to be inclusive or respectful.
  • Organizations set measurable diversity and inclusion goals.
  • Leaders are willing to base compensation on hitting those diversity and inclusion goals.
Amber Tamblyn, writing for the New York Times, sums up the experience of many women who have recently spoken out about sexual harassment and gender discrimination: “We are learning that the more we open our mouths, the more we become a choir. And the more we are a choir, the more the tune is forced to change.” Changing biased, discriminatory, and abusive organizational cultures is going to take the whole village. Let’s stay vigilant and keep the pressure on for change.   Image courtesy of businessforward (CC BY 2.0)]]>

How Class-action Lawsuits against Silicon Valley Can Benefit All of Us

Anita Hill, an attorney and professor at Brandeis University, is one of my heroines. She had the courage in the early 1990s to accuse her ex-boss Clarence Thomas of inappropriate sexual behavior toward her when he was her supervisor. When she learned that he was nominated for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, she felt she had to testify to his lack of moral character during his confirmation hearings. She came forward and spoke the truth of her experience. While she was not able to stop his confirmation, she did give a voice and a name to the abusive behavior that women have always been subjected to by powerful men—sexual harassment. Her testimony opened a door for women to work together with male allies to make the workplace safer and more inclusive for all women. Recently, Professor Hill weighed in on the revelations from Silicon Valley about gender discrimination and harassment in the technology industry. She suggests that the industry will benefit from the interventions into sexism experienced by Wall Street in the 1990s—massively expensive and successful class-action lawsuits that brought about industrywide change. Hill notes that “while pay and promotion discrimination still exists [at Wall Street firms], more women on Wall Street are advancing in their careers to managing directorships and other leadership roles.” Hill points out that the letter released by a young male Google employee that claimed biological differences make women poorly suited to engineering revealed deep-seated sexist attitudes mirrored by recent incidents at Uber and other technology organizations. When a former female Uber employee wrote a blog about her experiences with Uber’s toxic, male-dominated culture, other female coders and engineers came forward with allegations of sexism at Google, Tesla, Twitter, Microsoft, and Oracle, to name a few. Hill cites the following statistics as further evidence of widespread gender discrimination in the tech industry:

  • Women under twenty-five earn, on average, 29 percent less than their male counterparts.
  • For the same job at the same company, women of all ages receive lower salary offers than men 63 percent of the time.
  • Women hold only 11 percent of executive positions at Silicon Valley companies.
  • Women own only 5 percent of tech start-ups.
  • Only 7 percent of partners at the top one hundred venture capital firms are women.
  • Women quit tech jobs at more than twice the rate of men.
According to Hill, while some tech companies have given lip service to improving conditions for women, there is not much genuine action other than offering diversity training, which has limited impact without systemic efforts to change the company culture. For example, in response to a suit alleging wage discrimination against women, Google lawyers said in May that it would be too burdensome for the company to collect data on salaries. In other words, they are not serious about eliminating gender discrimination. Hill suggests that “women in the industry should collectively consider class-action discrimination cases against employers.” She notes that the existence of confidentiality clauses and arbitration agreements, put into place after the 1990s to preempt class-action suits, do not mean that suits cannot be brought. Now that women in technology are speaking out and refusing to be silenced, they can band together and file suits to bring change to the technology industry. It won’t happen otherwise. It’s in everyone’s best interests that women in technology file lawsuits. As Hill notes, “The economic benefits could be remarkable. Advancing women’s equality, which includes minimizing the gender gap in labor force participation, holds the potential to add $12 trillion to global G.D.P. by 2025.” Let’s encourage women to step forward.   Photo in the public domain courtesy of StartupStockPhotos.]]>

Revealing Root Causes: What Keeps the Glass Ceiling in Place in the Financial Sector?

So many talented women entrepreneurs with great technology business ideas cannot raise the capital needed to start their businesses from Silicon Valley investors. Likewise, many women in Wall Street firms cannot make partner, or otherwise advance, no matter how well they perform. Even with lots of publicity, such as the recent gender discrimination lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, programs put in place to help women advance, diversity programs on unconscious bias, and millions of dollars spent to settle class-action gender discrimination cases, not much has changed on Wall Street for women. What keeps the glass ceiling in place? New research reveals some root causes that could open pathways to change.

Silicon Valley Venture Capital Firms

Let’s be clear. Only 1 percent of the ideas pitched to venture capital firms get funded. The problem is those that get funded are overwhelmingly pitched by white men. Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times notes that of the people who get investment funding to start new businesses, 1 percent are black, 8 percent are women, and 12 percent are Asian, according to data from CB Insights. Here are some of the underlying structural causes of the problem:
  • Men make up 94 percent of partners at venture capital firms, and the business is insular. Miller notes that most investors accept pitches only from entrepreneurs who come through an introduction via their personal networks.
  • Venture firms with female partners are three times more likely to invest in a company with a female chief executive—but a Babson College study found that just 6 percent of partners at venture capital firms are women.
  • Miller cites a 2014 study published by the National Academy of Sciences, which found that investors prefer pitches by men (68 percent), particularly attractive men, to those by women (32 percent), even when the content of the pitch is exactly the same.

Wall Street

Maureen Sherry, reflecting back on her career as a managing director at Bear Stearns, looks at the current statistics for women at Wall Street investment banks and notes that very little has changed, despite hundreds of millions of dollars paid out to settle gender discrimination suits—most recently $46 million paid out by Morgan Stanley and $39 million by Bank of America. She cites a 2015 Bloomberg Businessweek survey that tracked MBA graduates from 2007–2009, which found the following:
  • While women received almost the same pay upon graduating, six to eight years later their pay averaged 20 percent less than the pay of their male classmates.
  • Female graduates of Columbia Business School, who went to work primarily for Wall Street financial institutions, earned 40 percent less than their male colleagues.
Sherry reveals a very interesting root cause for the Wall Street glass ceiling:
  • New employees are required to sign a U4 arbitration agreement “that binds a worker to settle any job dispute with her employer in-house,” usually with arbitrators chosen because they are friendly to the bank. Not surprisingly, roughly two out of three cases are decided in Wall Street’s favor.
  • When settlements are awarded, the employee must sign a nondisclosure agreement, and the stories and patterns of discrimination remain hidden from the public.


Maureen Sherry states unequivocally that mandatory arbitration needs to be banned so that action, in the form of laws, regulations, and public pressure, can be taken to change the culture of Wall Street. As long as the stories and patterns stay hidden, and the deep-pocketed banks barely notice the settlement payouts, there is no incentive to change. As for venture capital firms, we must keep the spotlight on their insular and discriminatory practices and assert public pressure for them to be more inclusive. Bringing these root causes into the open will help us all know what to look for and how to bring pressure for change.   Image courtesy of Ambro at]]>