The lawsuit, which alleges that a female executive at Google had been unfairly hired at a lower level—and salary—than male counterparts, is the first to be filed after the 2018 Google walkout.
As Google trudges through a landmark antitrust battle in Washington, DC, the tech giant faces another legal first in New York: On Tuesday, a pay discrimination case is going to trial for the first time in the company’s history.
The trial is centered around a Google executive named Ulku Rowe, a director of engineering in the company’s cloud unit. Rowe alleges that she was hired at Google at a lower “level” than several men in her role with similar backgrounds and experience and denied promotions because of her complaints, which she claims cost her millions of dollars in “past and future lost wages and benefits.”
The case was the first pay discrimination suit to be filed against the company after the Google walkout in 2018, a high-profile protest in which 20,000 workers marched out of Google offices around the world to demonstrate against the company’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations and other labor issues, including pay inequity. One of the demands from walkout organizers was an end to forced arbitration, which required employees to settle disputes outside of court. After the walkout, Google ditched that rule, first for cases of sexual harassment and assault before expanding it to all employee disputes. With the new policy in place, Rowe, who participated in the walkout, filed her suit in September 2019.
“This case is really the embodiment of what that walkout was about in terms of pressing the issues demanding accountability,” said Cara Greene, an attorney at the firm Outten and Golden, which is representing Rowe.
In the complaint, Rowe claims she was unfairly hired at a level 8, while others in her org came in at level 9, leading to a significant pay gap and slower career trajectory.
“The pay disparity between Plaintiff and her male comparators is not based on a seniority system, a merit system, or a system which measures earnings by quantity or quality of production,” the lawsuit reads. The trial, which is set to last two weeks (barring a surprise settlement), is expected to include testimony from Google Cloud CTO Will Grannis, as well as the division’s former president, Tariq Shaukat.
Google told Forbes it “thoroughly investigated” Rowe’s complaint at the time and found no wrongdoing. “We compensate Googlers based on what they do, not who they are—our leveling and compensation processes are designed to be equitable,” Google spokesperson Courtenay Mencini said in a statement, pointing to a pay equity analysis the company conducts annually to decide salaries, bonuses and equity—though the analysis is only available internally to employees. “If through our pay equity analysis we find any differences in proposed pay, across all demographics, we make upward adjustments before new compensation goes into effect.”
Greene, Rowe’s attorney, argues that misleveling eludes a traditional pay equity analysis because people are only compared at the same level. Without comparing people across levels, pay inequity “flies under the radar,” she said.
While this is the first time a pay equity case is going to trial for Google, the company has faced numerous complaints in the past. Last year, the company paid $118 million to settle Ellis v. Google, a 2017 class action suit involving more than 15,000 women who worked at the company since 2013 and alleged pay discrimination. Years earlier, in 2015, a former Google engineer named Erica Joy Baker circulated a spreadsheet in which employees at the tech giant disclosed their salaries, in an effort to highlight wage disparities at the company.
The problems still persist across the industry, said Y-Vonne Hutchinson, CEO of ReadySet, a consultancy that works with companies to improve equity and diversity issues. (Google is a former client.) “2023 has been a hard year for pay equity, particularly in tech,” she said, thanks to mass tech layoffs disproportionately affecting women and people of color. But, she pointed out, the positive thing about a pay discrimination suit going to trial—a rarity in the tech world, as cases are oftentimes settled before reaching court—is it allows for these sorts of discussions to happen in public. “There’s a real opportunity here to increase transparency,” she said.
Meanwhile, Google is already embroiled in one of the most important legal battles the tech industry has seen in more than two decades. The U.S. Department of Justice, along with a handful of states, has accused the tech juggernaut of using its market dominance to entrench its search business and harm competitors. While the matters at hand are different, both trials illustrate Google’s massive power and influence, Greene said. “Google, whether it’s deemed a monopoly or not, certainly sets the standard for the industry,” she said. “In terms of pay, hiring, recruiting, the general terms and conditions for people who work in tech, Google drives a lot of that.”
Protest has been ingrained in Google’s culture for years. In 2018, workers pushed back against the company’s decision to take part in Project Maven, a Defense Department initiative aimed at developing better artificial intelligence for the U.S. military. After that, reports surfaced about a secret project called “Dragonfly,” an effort to build a censored search engine in China. A handful of workers quit and about 1,000 employees signed an open letter asking CEO Sundar Pichai to be more transparent about the project. The walkout, though, was the resounding crescendo, and paved the way for protest at other companies.
“A lot of seeds were planted,” Hutchinson said of those earlier activism efforts in tech more broadly. “This movement builds upon itself and opens up new avenues.”