A lawsuit claiming Google systematically discriminates against women in pay and promotion could force the search giant, and other Silicon Valley companies, to change hiring and promotion practices.

Three former Google employees filed the lawsuit Thursday in San Francisco, and said they would seek to make the case a class action, representing all women who have worked at Google since 2013.

William Gould, a former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board who teaches law at Stanford, says the case could prompt changes at Google and elsewhere, such as opening up more avenues for promotion for women.

“Class action is the principal vehicle through which discrimination violations can be remedied,” Gould says. “Corporations pay attention to the potential of monetary liability and money relief produces reforms better than anything else that exists.”

Google is also the subject of a US Department of Labor investigation into whether it discriminates against women in pay. Preliminary analyses showed large gaps; in addition, the New York Times last week reported that data compiled by female Google employees shows women are paid less than men in most job categories. But Gould said the lawsuit filed Thursday “is much more significant than anything the Department of Labor would do.” He says Thursday’s suit also may help air evidence from the government investigation that would not otherwise be public.

The suit is sure to be felt far beyond Google. It comes amid widespread concern about treatment of women in the technology industry, following public allegations of harassment against prominent executives and venture capitalists. Several CEOs have resigned or been ousted, most recently Mike Cagney of SoFi on Monday.

Google spokeswoman Gina Scigliano says the company contests “the central allegations” in 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 says in a statement. “And we have extensive systems in place to ensure that we pay fairly.”

Thursday’s complaint alleges that Google violated the California Equal Pay Act and engaged in unlawful and unfair business practices. It alleges that women are paid less than similarly qualified men, are assigned to lower job classifications, and placed on career “ladders” with lower pay and less prestige than comparable men.

One of the named plaintiffs, Kelly Ellis, worked at Google from 2010 to 2014. According to the complaint, she arrived at Google with four years experience but was placed in an entry-level ladder, and assigned a less-prestigious position. At the urging of senior software engineers at the company, she applied for a promotion but was turned down. The complaint claims that Ellis was paid less than men “for substantially equal or similar work” during her tenure at Google. She resigned in 2014 due to the sexist work environment, the complaint says.

In an interview with WIRED, Ellis says she was motivated to pursue legal action based on Google’s response to the Department of Labor investigation. In April, Google published a blog post insisting that Google was committed to pay equity, but did not find any gender pay gap after copious research. “There’s been a lot of lip service, and more recently since the Department of Labor investigation came out there’s been a denial, which made me realize that this isn’t going to get fixed unless we make them fix it,” Ellis says.

Ellis says she did not discuss her career-ladder placement during her four years at Google. It was both taboo and daunting to reveal that she was on the same level as a man with no work experience. “There’s no official way to appeal that and I didn’t really see women talking about these issues as a systemic thing,” she says.

A second plaintiff, Holly Pease, worked at Google from 2005 to 2016, managing engineering teams that worked on Google’s internal infrastructure. Pease had more than a decade of experience as a network engineer when she was hired, but was placed on the Business Systems ladder at Google, which came with lower compensation and fewer opportunities for upward mobility. According to the complaint, Pease was kept on “non-technical” ladders, and denied moves to better-paying “technical” ladders.

Kelli Wisuri, the third plaintiff, had 2 ½ years sales experience when she joined Google in 2012, but was placed at the lowest level available on the “Sales Enablement” ladder, instead of the better-paid “Sales” ladder. Wisuri alleges that the most of her co-workers on the Sales ladder were men, but half the employees on the Sales Enablement ladder were women. She left the company in 2015 due to the lack of advancement opportunities for women, the complaint says.

James Finberg, an attorney with Altshuler Berzon representing the plaintiffs, said that some women who had “very compelling stories” and wanted to be plaintiffs in the suit were stymied by clauses in their employment contracts that require any dispute to be handled through arbitration. He said Pease was not subject to an arbitration clause. He also said Google did not seek to compel arbitration in another case involving a potential class action.

Kim Scott, a former Google executive who managed a team of 700 people during her six-year tenure at the company, says she did not experience or see any evidence of pay discrimination. Scott, who left Google in 2010, does not believe this will impact the company’s ability to hire women. “Google has a deserved reputation as being one of the best places for women to work,” she says. “Google is not perfect, but it’s the best and I didn’t have trouble there as a woman and I have had trouble at a lot of other places as a woman.”

Scott says there has been a remarkable shift in the tech industry’s response to women over the past few months, beginning with Susan Fowler’s allegations of gender discrimination at Uber, which contributed to the resignation of former CEO Travis Kalanick. “There’s now a lot of optimism that change can and will occur,” she says.

The specter of a class action lawsuit against Google isn’t limited to gender. James Damore, the former engineer whose memo motivated some plaintiffs to come forward, believes Google discriminated against him for his political beliefs. He has already filed a complaint to the National Labor Review Board and is considering legal action, including a class action lawsuit.



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