Claire Stapleton & Meredith Whittaker on the Google Walkout

Alicia Menendez discusses activism within Silicon Valley and tackling sexual harassment, gender inequality and racism in tech with two women who led the mass Google walkouts, Meredith Whittaker and Claire Stapleton.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: For the moment, we turn now to Silicon Valley where internal activism is brewing turmoil for big tech. Allegations of sexual harassment, gender inequality and racism sparked a global walk out by 20,000 Google employees last year. Two of its leaders were Claire Stapleton and Meredith Whittaker who worked at the company for over a decade. They said they were sidelined for speaking out. Telling our Alicia Menendez that Google needs to be held to account. Here is their conversation.


ALICIA MENENDEZ: What drew you to Google and then when did you realize that your expectations of what it would be was different than some of the realities?

CLAIRE STAPLETON, ORGANIZER, GOOGLE WALKOUT FOR REAL CHANGE: Yes. So, I used to work on a weekly event that happens at Google hosted by the founders, Larry and Sergey, or it used to be. And that is — it is a cultural hallmark of Google. We talk about what happened during the week, answer questions from employees, it’s this incredibly optimistic — it’s a profound cultural experience for people who come to Google. And I used to be at the side of stage every week watching this just think, “I am at the best company in the world. This is the most progressive workplace, the more forward-thinking. We are changing the world.” And that carried through a lot of the different roles that I had. What really changed it for me was in the fall of last year, there was a huge bombshell story about an executive payout that had been made to a known sexual harasser at Google. It was on the order of $90 million as reported. And that was incredibly disappointing. But what it sparked was women telling their stories at the company.

MENENDEZ: To each other?

STAPLETON: To each other, yes. Specifically, I was on an anonymous moms list where moms discuss everything that is going on at home and at work. And people started sharing their stories of different discrimination experiences they’d had, sexual harassment. Talking about their very profound, very personal reaction to the story that we were reading in the news. Because it wasn’t really about Andy Rubin and the sort of huge multimillion dollar payout. It was about the injustice and unfairness that a lot of women were experiencing every day. And it inspired me to say let’s register our dissatisfaction with management. They hadn’t addressed it in a way that I felt had urgency and accountability that showed us how this wasn’t going to happen again, that showed us how change was going to happen in the organization. And together, we set out to walk out. And that next week, we did and that was — I think it was 40 — was it 20,000 people?

WHITTAKER: Twenty thousand people.

STAPLETON: Twenty-thousand people in 40 offices.

MENENDEZ: What were the stories or the range of stories you were hearing from other women about the conditions they were facing at work?

STAPLETON: Yes. I think it was everything from I reported sexual harassment on my team and my manager protected the guy and I ended up having to transfer teams. That was incredibly common. It was almost an architect that came out. I heard a lot about people raising their hand and saying something isn’t right with the way — with our diversity and inclusion practices on the team or the way people are talking to each other. It doesn’t feel safe to me. I heard a lot about opportunity discrimination, that it’s a boys’ club, that the best projects are given to the manager’s friends, the VP’s friends. The best opportunities which are cherry picked for the favorites. I heard, generally, that people don’t have a lot of faith in fairness and opportunity. I think people in general have an expectation of fairness and opportunity in the workplace, particularly Google, which again I had a really rosy and positive view of the workplace for a long time.

WHITTAKER: You know, it all gets to sort of abuse of power, right, who has power and who doesn’t. And ultimately, if someone in a position that didn’t have power was harassed or racially discriminated against or discriminated against because of their gender identity, et cetera, it was way, way too often. They were ostracized. They were sort of seen as the problem and the people who did have structural power were, you know, ultimately, I think, almost maybe not explicitly encouraged to do it, but if you’re not punished for it, if you’re sort of — if you never see any consequences, that is an implicit endorsement for that kind of behavior and those types of power structures. And I think this is something we need to get to the heart of, right. Who wins from this type of behavior?

MENENDEZ: You released a joint letter internally to the company speaking out about the culture of retaliation. Claire, you wrote, “My manager started ignoring me, my work was given to other people, and I was told to go on medical leave even though I’m not sick.”


MENENDEZ: What happened?

STAPLETON: So in January, two months after the walk out, I had a conversation with my manager where she laid out what was clearly a demotion. I would be layered, my team would be split in two, and yes, my – –

MENENDEZ: Did you recognize it as retaliation at the time?

STAPLETON: I didn’t. I mean it crossed my mind because she mentioned the walk out. And then she positioned — she suggested a new project for me, working on YouTube Kids. And I asked her why would I want to work on YouTube Kids? And she said, “Oh, I thought you would be interested in that because of the walk out.” I said help me connect the dots. What’s the connection there? And she said, “You know, women’s issues.” So it was clearly I think top of mind even though it was also just sort of a clumsy communication. What happened in the following few months was I was just trying to have my questions answered. I was so confused after years on this team highly established, a strong performer, always, you know, increasing my scope, expanding my role on the team, all of a sudden it was a huge set back. As I asked these questions, the more isolating and strange the situation got. And in fact, the more that I was able to connect my story to the story of so many other women who described retaliation when they had spoken up about something that was happening in their workplace.

MENENDEZ: The letter concludes, “If we want to stop discrimination, harassment, and unethical decision making, we need to end retaliation against the people who speak honestly about these problems. What was it you were trying to achieve?

WHITTAKER: Well, I think we needed to call out one of the primary barriers to ending racism, misogyny, sexual harassment, and abuse within the workplace. Nicole Porter is a legal scholar who wrote an essay in the Stanford Law Review that makes an extremely compelling argument that actually practices of retaliation are one of the, you know, are the first thing we need to tackle when we begin to tackle these sort of Me Too issues, this sort of massive, you know, the ongoing issue of persistent sexual harassment and discrimination within workplaces, you know, in tech and well beyond. And that the fear of speaking up, the — you know, legitimate fear of speaking up, the personal cost, you know, the cost to your career and your livelihood that retaliation, you know, that retaliation creates is a huge problem that means that, you know, I think it’s no accident that a lot of the big Me Too stories are stories that are told about incidents that happened years before. These aren’t people coming out and putting themselves at risk within their workplaces. And what we saw, you know, when Claire and I came forward with our stories, it was a dam broke. We have hundreds of stories of people contacting us and this happened to me.

MENENDEZ: What were your hearing? What were those stories?

WHITTAKER: Well, you know, all sorts of things but they share some key features. One, you begin to be isolated. You begin to be sort of iced out of conversations. You begin to be suddenly people who are warm or friendly turn cold. And so the environment you’re in changes suddenly. You’re taken off projects. You are told that you’re not doing well. You know, are you too sensitive, too negative? You know, not performing well. All of these things, you know, it kind of formed a persistent structural gaslighting where you’re told the day before you were doing well, suddenly you bring a problem to the attention of management and you are the problem.

MENENDEZ: Right. By identifying the problem, you become the problem. How does that then function for someone who is a contract worker?

WHITTAKER: Well, I mean, that is — that functions — it’s sort of a double layer of vulnerability, right. Because Google now has over — 50 percent of the workers at Google are contract workers. These are people who don’t have the privileges of full employment. They don’t have health insurance. They’re often paid, you know, (INAUDIBLE) wages. They don’t get to report directly to Google’s HR system. And the power asymmetry between contract workers and full-time workers is significant. So they are extremely vulnerable to these practices. This is in issues of sexual harassment and abuse but issues of racial discrimination, issues of other forms of discrimination that happen persistently to contract workers because if you look at the racial makeup, if you look at the gender make up of Google’s workforce, you will see there are very — I think Google’s workforce is four percent black people. The Google’s full-time work force. And you see in contract workers — I don’t have the numbers off the top of my head. I don’t know that they’re reported. But it is far — you know, you’ll see many more women of color. You’ll see many more black people in the contract work force than in the full-time workforce. And you see very technically like using this term correctly you see a sort of pattern of structural racism, where those at the bottom are the people who are most vulnerable are also more likely to be people of color and women and the people with the most privileges are much more likely to be, you know, men, white men. Often.

MENENDEZ: Claire, tell me about your ultimate departure from the company.

STAPLETON: I think that when we went out with our stories, we knew we risked our jobs because this is how retaliation works. I think that we knew that we were speaking out for people that felt like they couldn’t risk their jobs. Ultimately, I found out that I was pregnant in the spring and I’ve been going through such stress and isolation. I think that the medical leave antidote in my statement and my story really sums up how crazy making — sharing your retaliation can be. Because ultimately I was raising a serious retaliation claim to the highest throngs the company. And the only solution that they came back to me with was not let’s figure out a way to make sense of this between you and your manager, find you a new team, transfer you somewhere where you can thrive. This was you must declare yourself sick and unable to work. And I really sat with that. I really considered that. Am I crazy? Am I the sick one? Is the fact that I’m speaking out — am I as problematic and as crazy as they say, right? So I’ve been bolstered and encouraged by the network of women and men that have formed around the walk out but ultimately for my health and sanity and for my family, it made sense for me to leave.

MENENDEZ: Meredith, you’re still there which is almost more unbelievable.

WHITTAKER: Yes. I persist I will be there until I can no longer do my job with integrity. But I will say it’s very difficult. I will also say that because my work is sort of focused outside of Google and has been for many years, it’s not an uncommon arrangement in the tech industry but I cofounded an independent academic research that some call AI now. And so I do spend a lot of my time, you know, there and talking with people who are outside of Google about serious research questions related to AI and ethics.

MENENDEZ: But at some point, you were told to abandon that work.

WHITTAKER: I was. That was the sort of form that the retaliation took. And there’s a term in labor law called constructive discharge. And this is when instead of firing you, saying, you know, Meredith, you’re out. They just make it impossible for you to stay. So you have to kind of fire yourself, right. And this is recognized in labor law because it’s not an uncommon practice. But in a sense telling me I have to abandon that work which sort of I have built my reputation, I have built my career, I formed a research institute with Kay Crawford looking at these issues. We have long-term grants. We have a staff that is moved from around the world to work with us. Telling me to abandon that and take on what was effectively kind of a project management and administration job that was looking at very different things like balancing the budgets in a given department was a form of fairly significant constructive discharge.

MENENDEZ: The things that you’re saying about Google are very serious. Back in April, the company said this in response. “We’ve prohibit retaliation in the workplace and publicly share our very clear policy. To make sure that no complaint raised goes unheard at Google, we give employees multiple channels to report concerns including anonymously and investigate all allegations of retaliation.” The company also said they did an investigation and saw no evidence of retaliation. How do you respond?

STAPLETON: Yes. I mean they said that. I would love to understand that what happened to my role as after not just, you know, four or five years on this team as a, you know, a high performer and, you know, rising star, but 12 years of a solid track record at the company. The first time this had ever happened to me where my role had been set back, diminished, where I felt like I could no longer talk to my leadership without fear of further retaliation happened two months after the walkout. And that to me seems as clear of day. I don’t know — so many of the stories that came out from the walk out and beyond to the many people that Meredith and I have connected with over the past few months in starting to share our stories have shown that actually Googlers don’t have a lot of faith in these systems. They don’t have a lot of faith in the investigations that get done in the HR people that they seek for help and the executives that they ask to help step in and figure out situations that don’t feel right. This isn’t just about me and Meredith. We knew that we weren’t just the only two stories out there. And in fact, when we went out, we were emboldened by knowing we were speaking on behalf of many others.

MENENDEZ: Why not sue the company?

WHITTAKER: Let’s be clear. These claims are extremely difficult to prove. There’s some very, very, very bad case law and sort of labor protections that have been whittled away over the years to make it, you know — it’s difficult to prove that suddenly I was gas lit, suddenly my workplace was so hostile I got sick coming in every day. We were hearing reports like this, right. And one of the — I think one of the trickiest and most difficult things about retaliation is that the company never admits that it’s retaliating. So that statement was written by I’m sure a very competent lawyer. And that’s exactly what you would say if you wanted to, you know, shore yourself up against any legal liability. But it’s simply not true, right. And it’s not true in our experience. It’s not true in hundreds of people’s experience. And this gets into this sort of systemic issues with HR. HR is there not to protect workers, right. They aren’t your union and I think we do need some kind of collective workers solidarity that can protect us against these things. HR is there to prevent the company from being liable for these harms. So the reason you have to watch all those deadening training videos about sexual harassment compliance that have over 30 years shown that they do nothing to affect this problem. The reason they have this sort of reporting structure and the reason they’re set up the way they are is to protect the company from legal liability. That’s what HR does and they actually don’t want to help you bring a case.

MENENDEZ: It’s now been months since the walk out. Were there any successes that you can point to?

WHITTAKE: I mean Google ended forced arbitration not just for sexual harassment but across the board. Now, they did that for full-time employees. It’s still unclear how that’s going to affect the majority of workers who are contractors. Google has also put in place, you know, a promise to increase benefits and give things like health insurance, have a minimum wage for contract workers, which is also contract workers have been organizing since then around, you know, demands for, you know, dignified work and, you know, reasonable benefits. Those are the two big kind of bulwarks. And I think one of the other successes that isn’t specifically Google meeting the demands is just how much the organizing has grown. And now we have a really, you know, a fabric of organizers within the company who are taking this very seriously and sort of beginning to take ownership for the environment that we work in and beginning to make, you know, clear demands to leadership about what we as workers need.

STAPLETON: I think what is most shocking is that this is the company that sets out to solve the world’s biggest problems and we acknowledge that what we were raising with the walk out is really broad systemic deep issues. However, we’ve seen no imagination, no ingenuity to tackling these problems. The woman that they appointed to really respond to what employees are raising left the company a few months later. So clearly this is not quite being given the resources and urgency, the honesty, the accountability that we’re really asking for however lots of wins and we’re so pleased to see how the community is growing.

MENENDEZ: Thank you both so much.

WHITTAKER: Thank you so much.

STAPLETON: Thank you.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour and Michael Fallon discuss Boris Johnson winning his party’s vote to become the next British Prime Minister. Mairead McGuinness joins the program to react to Johnson’s election. Amanpour speaks to Pat Toomey about his criticisms of President Trump. Alicia Menendez interviews Claire Stapleton and Meredith Whittaker, organizers of the Google Walk Out for Real Change.