Claire Stapleton’s disillusionment with Google captures America’s disillusionment with Silicon Valley.
An employee who helped organize the worldwide Google walkout last year says she’s quitting — because her managers have been punishing her for her activism.
“I made the choice after the heads of my department branded me with a kind of scarlet letter that makes it difficult to do my job or find another one,” wrote Claire Stapleton in a note she shared with her colleagues this week and published Friday on Medium. “If I stayed, I didn’t just worry that there’d be more public flogging, shunning, and stress, I expected it.”
Stapleton is a marketing manager at YouTube, which is owned by Google. She’s one of seven employees at the tech company who organized a massive protest, called the Google Walkout for Real Change, that prompted 20,000 Google employees and contractors in 50 cities to walk off the job on November 1, 2018, to oppose the company’s handling of sexual harassment allegations.
They also put together a list of demands for executives to address what they considered “rampant” sexism and racism at the company. CEO Sundar Pichai agreed to make some policy changes, including getting rid of mandatory arbitration clauses in labor contracts and improving pay and benefits for contract workers, but employees are pushing for more.
Stapleton said she was demoted and told to take medical leave, even though she wasn’t ill. Meredith Whittaker, an artificial intelligence researcher, said she was reassigned and told to stop her well-known research on AI ethics. Both women detailed their experiences in an email to coworkers in April, which was then shared with journalists at Wired and published.
“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,” Stapleton, who has worked at Google for 12 years, wrote. “Only after I hired a lawyer and had her contact Google did management conduct an investigation and walked back my demotion, at least on paper. While my work has been restored, the environment remains hostile and I consider quitting nearly every day.”
That day just came.
Stapleton’s farewell note perfectly captures the larger moral crisis unfolding at Google and across Silicon Valley, and reflects growing disillusionment with an industry that once represented hope and idealism.
Employees say the company has undergone a major cultural shift in the past two years
In her essay, Stapleton described how proud she was to get a job at Google’s main campus in Silicon Valley back in 2007. She says she remembers watching employee dodgeball games and has fond memories of drinking beers as she listened “in rapture” to Google co-founders Larry Paige and Sergey Brin during their TGIF staff meetings every Friday.
“Google’s lore, its leadership, its promise — the whole thing lit me up, filled me with a sense of purpose, of inspiration, of privilege to be here,” she wrote.
All that changed in 2017, she said. She was working for YouTube in New York, and had just returned from maternity leave:
The world had changed, dramatically altering the context of our work and the magnitude of our decisions, especially at YouTube. Google’s always had controversies and internal debates, but the “hard things” had intensified, and the way leadership was addressing them suddenly felt different, cagier, less satisfying.
She wasn’t the only one who felt a shift.
Thousands of tech workers at Google have recently been questioning whether the company has “lost its moral compass” in the corporate pursuit to enrich shareholders.
In April 2018, more than 3,000 Google employees protested the company’s military contract with the Pentagon — known as Project Maven — which involved technology to analyze drone video footage that could potentially identify and kill human targets.
About a dozen engineers resigned over what they viewed as an unethical use of artificial intelligence, prompting Google to let the contract expire in June 2018 and leading executives to promise that they would never use AI technology to harm others or cause human suffering.
A few months later, an investigation by the Intercept revealed that Google was secretly working on another questionable project: a censored search engine for Chinese officials in Beijing.
The search engine under development, known as Project Dragonfly, was designed to hide search results that China’s authoritarian government wants to suppress, such as information about democracy, free speech, peaceful protest, and human rights, the Intercept reported.
The new search engine would also track a user’s location and would share an individual’s search history with a Chinese partner, who would have “unilateral access” to the data. This includes access to a user’s telephone number, according to an employee memo obtained in September 2018 by the Intercept.
After the news of Dragonfly leaked, more than 1,400 Google employees signed a letter demanding more transparency and accountability about the project’s potential impact on human rights. The controversy reportedly prompted at least five Google employees to quit in protest.
Google executives initially defended the Dragonfly project and tried to downplay concerns. They said that the project was just an experiment and that they had no contract in place with Beijing.
Then the company planned to bid on another Pentagon contract, known as JEDI, which involved building cloud storage for military data. There are few public details about what else the $10 billion project would entail. But one thing is clear: The project would involve using artificial intelligence to make the US military a lot deadlier.
In early October, facing mounting internal pressure, Google announced that it would not submit a bid for the contract. By the end of the month, employees got more unpleasant news: The company had secretly given million-dollar exit packages to executives accused of sexual harassment.
That included a $90 million payout in 2014 to Andy Rubin, the creator of the Android phone, who allegedly coerced a female subordinate into performing oral sex on him, according to a New York Times investigation. (Rubin denies it, though a Google investigation found the claim credible.) After leaving, Google invested in his next business venture.
That pushed employees, including Stapleton, over the edge. So a handful of them organized the global walkout in November.
“We’ve waited for leadership to fix these problems, but have come to this conclusion: no one is going to do it for us. So we are here, standing together, protecting and supporting each other,” the walkout organizers wrote in an essay published the morning of the walkout in New York magazine. “We demand an end to the sexual harassment, discrimination, and the systemic racism that fuel this destructive culture.”
On November 1, 2018, at exactly 11:10 am local time in time zones across the world, about 20,000 Google employees and contractors in 50 cities walked off the job in a coordinated protest. The Google walkout started at Google’s offices in Tokyo, then went to Singapore, before spreading across Europe and the East Coast of the United States.
The walkouts made headlines all over the world. As part of the walkout, organizers made five specific demands to company executives, including ending mandatory arbitration for employees and contractors. A week later, Pichai agreed to make some changes.
Walkout organizers say they’ve been punished
Some Google employees now say they’re paying a price for having spoken out.
Whittaker and Stapleton, who helped organize the walkout, said the company is trying to silence them by taking away their job responsibilities. Here’s Whittaker’s account, which she shared in an email with coworkers in April of this year:
Just after Google announced that it would disband its AI ethics council, I was informed my role would be changed dramatically. I’m told that to remain at the company I will have to abandon my work on AI ethics and the AI Now Institute, which I cofounded, and which has been doing rigorous and recognized work on these topics. I have worked on issues of AI ethics and bias for years, and am one of the people who helped shape the field looking at these problems. I have also taken risks to push for a more ethical Google, even when this is less profitable or convenient.
A spokesperson for Google denied their allegations when Vox first covered them in April.
“We prohibit retaliation in the workplace, and investigate all allegations. Employees and teams are regularly and commonly given new assignments, or reorganized, to keep pace with evolving business needs,” the spokesperson wrote in a statement to Vox. “There has been no retaliation here.”
Whittaker and Stapleton later met with other coworkers to see if anyone else had experienced retaliation for speaking up. Some of those coworkers ended up publishing a few of their stories on Medium, too.
Stapleton says the last few months have been “incredibly stressful and confusing” as supervisors have tried to discredit her story. So she decided to quit. Stapleton is expecting another child in the fall and says life is too short to put up with the harassment.
But she encouraged her colleagues to keep holding Google accountable.
“It is my greatest hope in leaving that people continue to speak up and talk to each other, stand up for one another and for what’s right, and keep building the collective voice,” she wrote. “I hope that leadership listens. Because if they won’t lead, we will.”