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Google Is Struggling to Remake Itself for the #MeToo Era

New HR policies alone won't reform the company's culture.

Illustration by Alex Nabaum

As in so many cases of sexual harassment, it was not the incident that sparked the most outrage, but the employer’s response. 

In 2012, Andy Rubin, the Google executive who developed the Android operating systems, started dating a woman who worked for him. By 2013, she wanted to end the affair. When she agreed to meet him in a hotel room, she later reported, he coerced her into performing oral sex. Google investigated the incident, found her complaint credible, and in 2014, the company’s CEO, Larry Page, demanded Rubin’s resignation, but not without softening the blow. “I want to wish Andy all the best with what’s next,” Page told employees. “With Android, he created something truly remarkable.” Over the next four years, the company paid Rubin $90 million in severance and invested millions in his new venture capital firm. 

When The New York Times published the details of Rubin’s case this past October, more than 1,500 Google employees took to a company mailing list to coordinate a worldwide walkout in protest. They expected a small gathering, but on November 1, more than a fifth of Google’s global workforce, 20,000 people in all, exited their offices, carrying signs that read “Hey Google, WTF?” and “Happy to quit for $90m—No sexual harassment required.” 

Four months later, the walkout appears as just one indication of a growing rift between labor and management in Silicon Valley. Tech CEOs like to think of their companies as open, horizontal organizations that reject entrenched bureaucracy and corporate hierarchies. But as they scale up from freewheeling startups to industry giants, that dynamic has been altered. Now, tech executives run their growing empires from seemingly distant corporate suites, and workers are demanding a greater say in how decisions are made and policies crafted. As one person put it in a speech during the walkout, “Google is not one human being ... who gets to hold all the power. It’s every single person who shows up to work every single day.” 

To appease their employees, firms are drawing on ideas from an old-fashioned bureaucratic tool kit, adopting the kind of human resource policies they once eschewed in an attempt to impose a layer of accountability between employees and their managers. In November, Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, announced that the company would implement new harassment reporting processes and place a greater emphasis on harassment training. Yet the history of HR is one of unanticipated consequences and backlash effects. Policies like the ones Google is putting in place may be ineffective at best, and at worst may entrench gender inequality. 

This has something to do with the origins of the human resource department, which was born not out of beneficence but from companies’ need to defend themselves against ambiguous employment laws. When Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibited employers from discriminating on the basis of race, religion, sex, and national origin, the federal government offered no definition of discrimination. Employers were left to define practices to keep abreast of rapidly expanding employment protections and ensure that they were compliant. These practices were given their own departments. Over time, the departments took on a life of their own, as so many things do in organizations. With annual reports, official procedures, and physical office space, the existence of a division becomes taken for granted—rarely evaluated in terms of its intended purpose. Sociologists Frank Dobbin and John Sutton identify these developments as evidence of the surprising strength of a “weak state”: When the state leaves the laws fuzzy, firms dedicate substantial resources to designing programs that demonstrate compliance. At the behest of management, many HR policies are designed in this spirit, with little regard for whether they instigate substantive improvements for employees. 

The discontent at Google is about more than a single incident. It is a reaction to the persistent problems of diversity and inclusion both at Google and across Silicon Valley. Today, Google is less than 3 percent black, less than 4 percent Latinx, and only 31 percent female (a number that has risen a mere 0.3 percent since 2014, even though Google spent $265 million on diversity initiatives that year and the next). The lack of representation spills over into pay inequality. Google claims to have no pay gap, compensating everyone equally based on their job title and experience, but in 2017, the Department of Labor concluded that there are, in fact, “systemic compensation disparities against women pretty much across the entire workforce.” 

To remedy these problems, the team that organized the walkout submitted a list of five demands. They asked the company to commit to equality of pay and opportunity. The rest of their demands are aimed at curbing the abuse of power—with a safe and anonymous harassment reporting procedure, increased corporate transparency around harassment, and an end to forced arbitration in harassment cases, which often advantages the company over complainants. 

Google replied with apologies and proposed changes that address each of the five demands. It has promised to end forced arbitration in sexual harassment cases and allow bystanders to participate in the reporting process—both changes that will make a substantial difference to people reporting harassment. When it comes to preventing harassment, however, Google is relying on better education about harassment policies and more frequent harassment trainings. These practices are used almost universally across industries. But they often don’t work.

Simply reading a sexual harassment policy can lower people’s opinions about women and reinforce implicit beliefs that favor men. This reaction may result from how policies are worded, typically portraying men as powerful and women as vulnerable. Studies show that they make people more likely to believe that women are irrational and men are vulnerable to false accusations—precisely the opposite of the intended effect. 

Harassment training—which has been almost universal in American firms since 1998, when two Supreme Court decisions shielded companies from liability if they trained their employees on the sexual harassment policy—also tends to be unproductive. Studies rarely show participants leaving with a better understanding of harassment. Trainings can even backfire. Some researchers have suggested that men perceive the lessons as accusatory and grow defensive, becoming less capable of correctly identifying the behaviors that constitute the problem. The men most likely to harass—the ones who score highest on what researchers call “gender-role conflict” tendencies—have the most adverse reactions to training. 

Google—along with the tech industry more broadly—has made little progress on solving these dilemmas. The new policies the company announced in November are entrenching the flawed systems. Harassment training will now be required every year, instead of every two, and workers who don’t attend trainings will have their performance scores docked—from “exceeds expectations,” for instance, to “consistently meets expectations.”

While Google has promised to improve its process for reporting harassment, its assurances are unlikely to alter the gender imbalances that deter women from coming forward in the first place. According to a 2018 survey, 41 percent of tech professionals who report an incident of any kind to HR experience some form of retaliation, from hostile comments to low performance scores or dismissal. Even once Google has made it easier to report harassment, women at the company will still confront a wrenching choice: say something and risk everything, or say nothing and let the harasser off the hook. 

Over the past year, conservative commentators have said time and again that the activism stemming from the #MeToo movement may backfire on women; men, they have warned, will avoid working closely with their female colleagues for fear of crossing a boundary into inappropriate intimacy. The more likely but less discussed risk is that organizations will try in good faith to educate their workforces about sexual harassment—only to have those efforts hurt the very people they’re meant to protect. 

If Google hopes to achieve the cultural changes demanded by its employees, the answer is plain. Firms with larger percentages of women in core roles and management positions consistently have lower rates of harassment. It’s not clear whether that’s because seeing women in power changes employees’ unconscious beliefs about gender or because the women in charge create more equitable environments. But the research is emphatic on one point: Hiring and promoting women is the most reliably effective way to reduce harassment. 

This is no simple intervention. It takes years to place women in C-suites and fields like engineering, which remain dominated by men. It also requires fundamental changes to the processes by which people are invited into organizations and moved around them. Managers need to be held accountable for the evaluations they use to make their decisions about who to hire and who to promote, and the very skills and characteristics associated with good leadership need to be rethought. 

Only with women in positions of power can companies expect to level the structural imbalances that have allowed men to use their status to manipulate less powerful employees—and bargain for extravagant severance packages when they are caught.