Last week, Google was dealt another blow in its battle to prove that it lives up to its stated values of inclusivity: Three female former employees filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of all women at the tech giant, accusing it of paying women less than men over the last four years.
“Google has discriminated and continues to discriminate against its female employees by systematically paying them lower compensation than Google pays to male employees performing substantially similar work,” the lawsuit reads, a situation that “is not justified by any lawful reason.” The three women allege that Google pulls this off not just by simply paying women less than men with the same skills and duties, but also by pushing women into jobs with fewer opportunities to advance to lucrative positions and promoting fewer women than men.
The lawsuit could finally force Google to reckon with years of claims that it doesn’t treat its female employees equally. But it should never have come to this. Individual lawsuits should be an extreme last resort for ensuring equal treatment. This behavior is, after all, illegal. Google itself should have fixed these problems long ago, and if and when that failed, it should be the role of the government to police companies to ensure they pay equally.
Instead, three women have now had to risk their own professional standing to take matters into their own hands.
The lawsuit says that “Google has known or should have known of the pay disparity between its female and male employees, yet Google has failed to equalize men’s and women’s pay.” While this language is standard legalese in such lawsuits, it’s no less damning. Google worships data. Its whole business is built on it. The company already performs pay equity analyses of its workforce every year. It should, and almost certainly does, have the data on how men and women’s pay stacks up. It would then be incumbent on a company whose slogan has variously been “Don’t be evil” and “Do the right thing” to fill in any unfair compensation gaps.
Even if it didn’t have such numbers at the ready, though, Googlers themselves also love data and have been taking this matter on themselves. It came out two years ago that employees had been compiling a spreadsheet of salaries—a copy of which was recently obtained by The New York Times. It showed that women are paid less than men at most job levels within the company, a gap that gets wider the further up they climb.
Google could have taken its employees’ concerns seriously and pledged to address any gender pay gaps. Some companies have done this proactively and voluntarily. Instead, it allegedly retaliated against the employee who started the spreadsheet in the first place. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, even successfully urged shareholders to vote down a proposal this year that would have required it to disclose pay gap data, something Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft have already agreed to do.
If companies won’t do this themselves, it should be up to government regulators to ensure that women are treated equally at work, as per our country’s anti-discrimination laws. And because Google is a government contractor, there should have been an easy route to such a solution in its case. The Department of Labor is tasked with regular compliance audits to make sure that federal contractors pay men and women equally. In conducting such an audit last year, the Labor Department found “systemic” pay disparities between men and women across Google’s workforce. With a sample of data, its analysis showed six to seven standard deviations between men’s and women’s compensation in most job categories, which means there’s a one in 100 million chance the gaps occurred thanks to random chance. A department official called it “quite extreme.”
But the department wanted full disclosure of pay data to assess the whole picture. Google refused to comply. So the department sued the company to get what it needed—yet a judge recently sided with Google, saying that what the department wants is “over-broad.”
Google publicly claims that it has no pay gap based on its annual analyses of its own compensation data. While it refuses to share the numbers that would back up its claim, it’s clear that the data exists. It’s not clear why it can’t just provide the information to the government or, even better, the public to prove that it has no wage gaps.
This conflict would have been less of an issue if an Obama-era policy had been allowed to go into effect. That rule would have required large companies to report pay data broken down by gender and race to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission every year, whether or not they’re federal contractors. It would have made it clear that companies are obligated to regularly collect and hand over compensation information, giving the federal watchdog the material it needs to crack down on any companies that might be paying people unfairly. No one would have been spared, and everyone would have been held accountable.
But the Trump administration recently halted that rule, and Republicans voted to deny the EEOC funding to carry this mission out. For now, this kind of data will remain under lock and key at the companies that don’t want to share it. The future of the Labor Department’s fight against Google, meanwhile, is now uncertain under an administration that has made it clear that gender equality isn’t a priority.
So now it’s been left to three former Google employees to try and exact some justice.
The details of their lawsuit are infuriating, if they’re true. Plaintiff Kelly Ellis alleges that she was hired into a Level 3 pay band in her software engineering role, yet within a few weeks the company hired a man to the same team into the band above her, even though they had graduated the same year. Holly Pease, who came to the company with ten years of experience, says she was kept on a “non-technical” job ladder that pays less while serving as a senior manager; meanwhile, the other senior manager on her team, a man, was on the “technical” path. Despite coaching numerous male employees on how to move to the technical pay band, she says she was denied the opportunity to do the same herself. Kelli Wisuri was allegedly placed into the lowest pay level when she was hired with two-and-a-half years of experience, yet similar male coworkers were put in the tiers above her.
A spokesman for Google denied the allegations in the lawsuit. “Job levels and promotions are determined through rigorous hiring and promotion committees, and must pass multiple levels of review, including checks to make sure there is no gender bias in these decisions,” Gina Scigliano told the New Republic. “And we have extensive systems in place to ensure that we pay fairly.”
It’s a huge risk for these women to come forward with such allegations. Ellis and Wisuri still work in technology, according to their LinkedIn profiles. (Pease says she’s “retired from Google” and serves on the board of a nonprofit.) Their names are now publicly attached to the complaint, which could earn them a black mark in a male-dominated industry that still often relies on informal networks and personal reputations.
And they are a long way from victory. Such lawsuits often take years to wind through the court system, requiring plaintiffs to put up their own time and resources along the way. In the end, there’s no guarantee that they’ll prevail. EEOC complaints of unequal pay are far more likely to end in favor of an employer, not the employee who says she was paid less. Recent high-profile cases don’t lend much comfort. Ellen Pao lost her gender discrimination lawsuit against venture capital firm Perkin Kleiner. Chia Hong dropped her gender and race discrimination case against Facebook less than a year after filing it.
Lawsuits are a risky, time-consuming, inefficient way to enforce pay equity for working women. Before it reaches that point, there should be more stages at which companies hold themselves or are held accountable for fair treatment. But the way things stand, many women are forced to either accept lower pay or take companies to court.