Google Sued by 3 Female Ex-Employees Who Say It Pays Women Less Than Men

SAN FRANCISCO — Three women who worked at Google are suing the company over its salary practices, accusing the search giant of discriminating against its female employees by systematically paying them less than men who do similar jobs.

In the suit, which was filed Tuesday in California Superior Court in San Francisco, the plaintiffs say Google knew or should have known about the pay disparity between men and women at the company, but failed to take action to rectify it.

“While Google has been an industry-leading tech innovator, its treatment of female employees has not entered the 21st century,” said Kelly M. Dermody of the law firm Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs in the suit. “This case seeks to ensure fairness for women at Google.”

Critics have argued that Google and other powerful technology companies have not done enough to level the playing field for women, especially in terms of elevating them to leadership and key engineering roles.

Google is attracting particular scrutiny over how it treats female employees after a memo written by a former male software engineer for the company argued that its efforts to bring more women into technical roles were unfair and not good for business. Women make up 31 percent of Google’s work force but hold only 20 percent of the company’s higher-paying engineering jobs.

The suit comes after a contentious fight with the Labor Department over a routine audit of Google’s pay practices. Google is subject to Labor Department oversight as a federal contractor that sells advertising and internet services to the government.

At a hearing this year, a department official said the audit had found “systemic compensation disparities against women pretty much across the entire work force, ” although Google has not officially been accused of any wrongdoing.

Last week, The New York Times published an article showing, according to data compiled by employees that provided a snapshot of salary information, that Google’s female employees in the United States were paid less than male employees at most job levels at the company, and that the pay disparity extended as women rose up the ranks.

Google said the data painted an incomplete picture of how its workers are paid, because it did not take into account different roles at the company, job performance and where the employees are based. Based on its own January 2017 analysis, Google said that, accounting for factors like tenure, job role and performance, female employees earned 99.7 cents to every dollar earned by men.

Within a few weeks of her hiring, the suit says, Google hired a male engineer onto her team who, like Ms. Ellis, had graduated from college four years earlier. But, the suit says, he was hired as a Level 4 employee, meaning he was paid a higher salary and had more opportunities for bonuses, raises and stock compensation. The suit says that other men on Ms. Ellis’s team whose qualifications were equal to or less than hers were also brought in at Level 4.

Google also segregated by roles within its engineering ranks, the suit says. Ms. Ellis had experience as a back-end engineer — a job that involves managing large systems like servers and databases — but was assigned to a front-end engineering role dealing with parts of a service that users interact with.

At Google, the suit says, back-end engineering jobs are considered more technically rigorous and more prestigious and that Google pays back-end engineers more and promotes them faster. Ms. Ellis, who left the company in 2014, says that almost all of the female software engineers at Google worked in front-end jobs while men worked in back-end roles. (After she left the company, Ms. Ellis accused a former manager of sexual harassment.)

A second plaintiff, Holly Pease, who worked at Google for 11 years and left in 2016, says in the suit that she was denied opportunities to gain status as a “technical” employee. Such employees earn more than nontechnical employees. She did not gain that status, despite having more than 10 years of experience as a network engineer and managing a Google team made up mostly of technical staff members.

The suit cites the Labor Department’s review of compensation data for all 21,000 employees at Google’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters for 2015, which found that the pay disparity between men and women was significant enough that there was “a one in 100 million chance” that it was occurring by chance.

Google and the Labor Department are battling in court over how much data the company needs to hand over as part of a review of its pay practices.

Google said it had already handed over 1.7 million data points and 329,000 documents as part of the inquiry and that the Labor Department was overreaching in its requests for more information. An administrative law judge ruled in July that Google had to hand over some data, although not as much as the Labor Department sought.

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