The #MeToo movement, started in Hollywood, is now moving into STEM workplaces, with thousands of Google staff around the world recently staging a walk-out to demand the company improve workplace conditions for women.
The walk-outs occured after a New York Times article was published alleging that a senior Google executive received a $90m payout despite a “credible” allegation of sexual misconduct.
Amongst other things, Google staff were looking for an end to forced arbitration in cases of workplace harassment. The staff maintained that forced arbitration served to protect the company and the accused, while silencing victims and leaving them with no further legal recourse.
Forced arbitration, forced signing of NDAs and silencing of victims is widespread across the STEM industry, even in Ireland.
After being sexually assaulted by her boss while working in the Pharmaceutical industry, Dublin woman Karen was forced to sign an NDA.
At the time, Karen was the number one rep in Europe and was looking forward to a healthy bonus, which is why she says she tolerated her, “arrogant prick of a boss”.
“I was terrified of losing my job, it was my word against his”
“One night we had a sales meeting in the midlands.” Karen says her boss was intoxicated and at the end of the night he followed her into the ladies toilets.
“He pushed me into a cubicle and forced his hand down the front of my dress. I tried to push him out but couldn’t.”
A woman in the next cubicle heard Karen’s calls for help and a barman came in and helped her to get away from her boss.
“Then he followed me back to the hotel and tried it again, and I later found out that the hotel night porter threw him out because he followed a woman into the ladies toilet in the lobby – her husband saw him and he too raised the alarm.”
Karen says the next day was awful as she didn’t know what to do. “I was terrified of losing my job, it was my word against his.”
It was only when I threatened to contact the Gardaí that they began to take me seriously
Karen tried to continue work as normal but she says she realised her boss was nitpicking at her in an effort to catch her out.
“I soon realised he was looking for ways to trip me up, so I knew I had to report him.”
Karen then reported the incident to the General Manager. “It began to drag on without any conclusion. I was denied a bonus, and they wanted me to continue working with him.”
“Even though there were multiple witnesses to my story, who also witnessed his behaviour, my employer claimed zero responsibility. It was only when I threatened to contact the Gardaí that they began to take me seriously.”
Other female employees had similar experiences, but they left because they didn’t think they’d be believed
Karen was not satisfied with the approach her work had taken so took the case to the equality tribunal.
“The company said it was off company premises so it was not their problem (even though it was an official work conference). In the end they paid me off to leave, and I took the money and used to it retrain so I never had to go back to pharma again.”
“They also made me sign an NDA for 5 years. That was in 2010.”
“Some other colleagues told me stories of other female employees who’d had similar experiences, but they left because they didn’t think they’d be believed. I don’t know the details because they protected him more than me.”
That Karen felt unsure about reporting the incidents, and worried about how it would affect her career, says a lot about where employers priorities are. Karen’s workplace were also keen to brush the whole incident under the carpet, until she threatened them with the Gardai.
Social media giant Facebook recently announced they will end their policy of forced arbitration in sexual harassment cases
As with Google, Karen’s employers appeared to be more concerned with protecting the abusers in their midst than keeping their employees safe from sexual harassment and assault, or enacting any accountability for the perpetrators.
Forced arbitration has been widely used in Silicon Valley. Perhaps seeing what way the wind is blowing, social media giant Facebook recently announced they will end their policy of forced arbitration in sexual harassment cases.
In a statement released by Google, their Chief Executive Sundar Pichai said, “We are dead serious about making sure we provide a safe and inclusive workplace. We want to assure you that we review every single complaint about sexual harassment or inappropriate conduct, we investigate and we take action.”
Mr Pichai said that Google were taking in the staff feedback, “so we can turn these ideas into action.”
The organisers of the walk-out met with Google management and reported that progress was made on some of their demands. The walk-out organisers were, however, critical that several of the core demands had been ignored.
Google has the power and influence to create a new culture that does not tolerate workplace sexism. It remains to be seen if they will follow through and do so.
Information about your workplace rights is available here.
About the Author
Taryn de Vere is a writer, a colourful fashion activist and a mother of 5.