Google employees gather in a common area to attend the Google Walkout in Singapore on Thursday, in this picture obtained from social media. Photo: Reuters
INTERNATIONAL – Google is struggling to contain a growing internal backlash over its handling of sexual harassment and its workplace culture.

Over the past week, Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, and Larry Page, a co-founder of Google and the chief executive of its parent company Alphabet, have taken multiple steps to calm its agitated 94 000-person workforce. The anger arose after The New York Times revealed last week that Google had paid millions of dollars in exit packages to male executives accused of harassment, and stayed silent about their transgressions.

Google later said it had fired 48 people for sexual harassment over the past two years; none received an exit package. Page and Pichai also issued apologies, with Pichai later saying his initial statement “wasn’t enough” and apologising again. One of the executives, whom Alphabet continued employing after he was accused of harassment, resigned on Tuesday and did not obtain an exit package.

But employees’ dissatisfaction has not subsided. On Thursday, more than 1 500 – most of them women – plan to walk out of almost two dozen company offices around the world to protest the treatment, organisers said.

“We don’t want to feel that we’re unequal or we’re not respected anymore,” said Claire Stapleton, 33, a product marketing manager at Google’s YouTube who helped call for the walkout.

“Google’s famous for its culture. But in reality, we’re not even meeting the basics of respect, justice and fairness for every single person here.”

The walkout is a culmination of simmering tensions at a time when Silicon Valley workers have become more activist. Tech employees once moved in lockstep with their leaders to make products that they said would change the world, but the industry has come under the spotlight for causing harm rather than good. That has led engineers, data scientists and others to increasingly question how their work is being used.

Employees at Microsoft and Amazon recently protested the companies’ work with federal immigration authorities when migrant children were being separated from their families at the Mexican border. And some employees at Facebook have complained that the social network is intolerant of different political perspectives.

Nowhere has the tech employee activism been more evident than at Google. Workers have pushed back this year against the company’s artificial intelligence work with the Pentagon, saying their work shouldn’t be used for warfare. Google eventually decided not to renew its contract with the Pentagon. Employees also rebuked Pichai and other executives for developing a search engine for China that would censor results. Since then, Google has not moved forward on a search product for China.

Google declined to comment.

The treatment of female employees has been an especially charged topic at Google. Just 31percent of its global workforce and about 26percent of its executives are women. Google has also been sued by former employees and the Department of Labour, which claim that it underpaid women; the company has said it does not have a wage gap between male and female employees.

Google workers said other incidents had raised questions about the company’s attitude towards women.

Last year engineer James Damore argued in an internal document that women were biologically less adept at engineering and that “personality differences” explained the shortage of female leaders at the company. After an outcry, Google executives rejected the memo and fired Damore.

At a staff meeting last year, Google’s founders Page and Sergey Brin also struggled to answer a question about who their female role models were, said two employees who saw a video of the meeting.

Brin tried to recall the name of a woman he had recently met at a company event who had impressed him, the people said. Page eventually reminded Brin that the woman’s name was Gloria Steinem, the feminist writer. Page said his hero was Ruth Porat, the chief financial officer of Google and Alphabet, said the people, who were not authorised to speak publicly.

Last week, The Times reported that Google had paid Andy Rubin, the creator of the Android mobile software, a $90million (R1.3billion) exit package even after the company concluded that a harassment claim against him was credible. Rubin has denied any misconduct and has said the report of his compensation is a “wild exaggeration". Google also paid millions of dollars in an exit package to another executive who was accused of harassment, and continued employing a third, despite a harassment claim.

Google’s workers were outraged. They immediately raised questions at a staff meeting with executives last Thursday about how the company approaches sexual harassment.

“I know this is really an exceptionally painful story for some of you, and I’m really sorry for that,” Page said.

The meeting did little to quell the anger. On Friday, Stapleton said, she created an internal mailing list to organise a walkout. More than 200 employees joined over the weekend, she said, and the numbers have since grown to more than 1500.

On Tuesday, Richard DeVaul, one of the Alphabet executives who The Times revealed was accused of harassment, resigned from the company.

NEW YORK TIMES