Google's Equal Pay Lawsuit Could Change Everything For Women In Silicon Valley

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A few weeks after Kelly Ellis started working at Google as a Level 3 software engineer, another new hire joined the team, she tells Bustle. He graduated from college the same year Ellis did, and she says she noticed that the two had the same type of work experience — but, for some reason, he joined the team as a Level 4 software engineer. Not long after that, Ellis says that she found out that Google had hired a ton more engineers fresh out out of college and allegedly placed them at Level 3 with her — despite their having zero years of experience, she claims, compared to her four.

"Pretty shortly after I got there, once I realized, 'Whoa, this is so unfair, I’m not supposed to be a Level 3,' I started talking to people about it," Ellis says. "I was hoping to get insight to try to understand what was going on, and I was told by other engineers more senior than me, 'Yeah, it’s actually really obvious to us that you were hired in at the wrong level.'"

According to Ellis, her manager told her not to worry, and that Google would correct the level. Following that conversation, Ellis says she applied for a promotion to a Level 4. Her request was denied on the basis that she had not been at Google long enough, she claims. Essentially, she says she had allegedly been told that even though she had the backend coding experience and was doing the work of a Level 4 software engineer, she was only going to get the pay and title of a Level 3. (Google did not comment on Ellis' specific case when reached by Bustle.)

"It just made absolutely no sense," Ellis says.

Ellis believes that her experience wasn't an isolated incident. Google seemed to have a pattern of filtering women into lower-level positions, she alleges. The corporation reportedly trapped them in career paths, Ellis says, that meant women might never even reach that glass ceiling, much less break it.

For example, two other former Google employees, Holly Pease and Kelli Wisuri, have joined Ellis. They say that they decided that even though they had left Google, they had to sue to make it right for other women.

What Google Says

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Last week, Ellis, Pease, and Wisuri filed a lawsuit against the company alleging gender pay discrimination. Google spokesperson Gina Scigliano says the tech giant, which employs more than 70,000 people, disagrees with the central allegations of the suit. "Job levels and promotions are determined through rigorous hiring and promotion committees, and must pass multiple levels of review, including checks to make sure there is no gender bias in these decisions," she writes in a statement sent to Bustle.

"We work really hard to create a great workplace for everyone, and to give everyone the chance to thrive here," Scigliano says. But this isn't the only legal battle the company is fighting.

In January, the Department of Labor (DOL) filed a lawsuit against Google to force the company to hand over information for a routine audit of its compensation practices, since Google contracts with the federal government and therefore must abide by its rules. Google has refused to comply in full and has been in a legal battle with the government over it, but the data sample that the DOL is in possession of found "systemic compensation disparities against women pretty much across the entire workforce," according to the court testimony of Janette Wipper, a DOL regional director.

"If we want to get it fixed, it seemed like the only way forward was to take legal action."

At the time, one of Google's attorneys called the DOL's request a "fishing expedition that has absolutely no relevance to the compliance review" during her opening remarks in court. Later, in an April blog post about pay equity after the DOL accused Google of gender pay discrimination, Eileen Naughton, vice president of People Operations, wrote, "It’s very important to us that men and women who join Google in the same role are compensated on a level playing field, when they start and throughout their careers here."

She said Google completes a scientific analysis of compensation each year that is "based on role, job level, job location as well as current and recent performance ratings," not gender. Using the company's analysis method, Naughton argued that there was no pay gap at Google.

That blog post infuriated Ellis, who claims levels are subjectively determined and says that was not addressed in the post. A Google spokesperson declined to comment about how job levels are determined.

"When the company is denying that there’s an issue, that means they’re not working to fix the issue," Ellis says. "If we want to get it fixed, it seemed like the only way forward was to take legal action."

How These Women Plan To Argue Discrimination

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The DOL's finding that Google does not pay women fairly could assist Ellis, Pease, and Wisuri in winning their lawsuit. Their lawyers are already confident that the data is on their side — and "it’s just very powerful to know that going in," Anne Shaver, an attorney for the plaintiffs, says.

The lawsuit alleges that the three women went through similar situations at Google. Pease held various management positions in her more than 10 years at the company, but she says she was kept on the "Business Systems" ladder instead of the higher-paying "technical" ladder. The majority of employees she managed were on the "technical" ladder. Wisuri was a salesperson placed on the lowest level of the "Sales Enablement" ladder instead of the commission-based — and therefore higher pay potential — "Sales" ladder.

Both claim that they had experience to warrant them being placed on the higher-paying ladders at higher levels where men with similar experience were placed.

Ellis explains that, in her experience, levels at Google are crucial to an employee's upward mobility. While both Level 3 and Level 4 employees do similar work, "your influence goes up with your level," Ellis says. People at higher levels get paid more, earn higher bonuses, and have more opportunities for promotion. Ellis claims Google generally does not make employees technical leads until Level 5, but if you were slotted at the wrong level when you were hired, you won't reach the opportunity you deserve at the time you deserve it.

Before the lawsuit can proceed, the court has to certify the class action request. If the court decides the class action filing is warranted, the lawsuit will represent not just the three female plaintiffs but any women who could have been affected. "You can imagine a single employee taking on all of Google, it’s very intimidating," Shaver says. "But if Google is forced to reckon not just with one or with three people but with a class of women, that evens the playing field."

What Happens Next?

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While the lawsuit might be about wages, for the plaintiffs, it ultimately is not about money — it's about equality. "We’re asking for back pay, which would mean the difference between what women should have been earning over the last four years and what they did in fact earn," says Jim Finberg, an attorney who's also representing the plaintiffs. That back pay request would apply to every single woman represented in the class action and could mean millions and millions of dollars.

But along with monetary damages, the plaintiffs are also asking the court for declaratory and injunctive relief "enjoining Google from continuing to pay women less than men for substantially similar work, including by segregating women into lesser compensated jobs than men with similar skills and experience; and from failing to promote women at the same rate or pace as men."

In simpler terms, this means that if the lawsuit were to be successful, Google could be required to immediately stop paying women less than men for doing similar jobs.

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What exactly would change would ultimately be up to the court, but Finberg says some options could include not using prior pay at a different job to set salary at Google, taking steps to ensure that women and men with the same experience are set at the same levels when hired, and making sure that positions and promotions are "based on skills and experience, and not gender."

It sounds simple, but that's what it comes down to for the plaintiffs. "I just hope that this changes things, that this changes Google’s processes going forward," Ellis says, adding that she hopes "other companies take note and notice that we are starting to stand up for ourselves when inequality is affecting our careers."