A Leaked Google Memo Exposes The Fallacy of 'Generous' Parental Leave

A Leaked Google Memo Exposes The Fallacy of 'Generous' Parental Leave

On Monday, Motherboard re-published a memo written by a Google employee with the title, “I’m Not Returning to Google After Maternity Leave, and Here is Why.” First posted on an internal message board, it details a now-departing employee’s allegations of pregnancy-related discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. The memo writer alleges that a manager made sexist and derogatory remarks about a coworker who might have been pregnant before retaliating following a related HR complaint. When the memo writer herself became pregnant, she says things got even worse.

The memo has gone viral internally at Google—and now it potentially seems poised to do so externally, as well. The latter is in no small part because of the cognitive dissonance of the allegations, given that Google is known for seemingly “generous” paid parental leave policies. Motherboard was not able to independently verify the allegations contained in the post, but the memo is nonetheless a reminder that even as paid parental leave policies move us toward workplace equity for pregnant people, they are not a full guarantee of it. Parental leave policies cannot single-handedly change the culture—of a particular workplace or more broadly.

If true, the memo is a troubling look at the failure of internal policy to address toxic workplace dynamics. It also follows a series of high-profile complaints about the treatment of women at Google. Earlier this year, allegations broke that the company’s board attempted to coverup sexual misconduct. Just last fall, Google employees staged a walkout over the company’s handling of sexual harassment claims—more specially, that it paid “millions of dollars in exit packages to male executives accused of misconduct, while staying silent about the transgressions,” as the New York Times reported. And, as Motherboard notes, it is two years ago to the day that another internal Google employee document went viral: Then-engineer James Damore wrote a memo arguing against the company’s diversity efforts on the scientifically inaccurate grounds that women are less competent in the field of technology than men.

“Parental leave policies cannot single-handedly change the culture—of a particular workplace or more broadly.”

The writer of this latest viral
memo, whose name was redacted by Motherboard, was a manager at Google when she says her own manager “started making inappropriate comments” about a member of her team, “including that the Googler was likely pregnant again and was overly emotional and hard to work with when pregnant.” She continues, “My manager also discussed this person’s likely pregnancy-related mental health struggles and how it’s difficult because, ‘you can’t touch employees after they disclose such things.’” The author felt her manager was encouraging her “to manage the [possibly pregnant] member of my staff off of the team.”

She says she then reached out to HR with a complaint and “almost immediately” found that her manager’s “demeanor towards me changed, and drastically.” The employee alleges “months of angry chats and emails, vetoed projects, her ignoring me during in-person encounters, and public shaming,” as well as the manager “sharing reputation-damaging remarks with other more senior Googlers” and “actively interviewing candidates to replace me.” After complaining again to HR, the employee says she was told there was “no evidence of retaliation.”

Then, she says she was encouraged, and agreed, to find a role on another team, but was told that she wouldn’t be able to manage her new team “until after returning from maternity leave for fear that my maternity leave might ​‘stress the team’ and ‘rock the boat.’”

I stood up for a mother on my team and doing so sent me down a path that destroyed my career trajectory at Google

Then, she writes, she was diagnosed with “a pregnancy-related condition that was life-threatening” to both her and her baby, and which would require an early maternity leave and bedrest. She relayed this to her new manager, who then allegedly told her that “she had just listened to an NPR segment that debunked the benefits of bedrest” and shared a personal story about how she had personally ignored her doctor’s bedrest order while pregnant herself. “My manager then emphasized in this same meeting that a management role was no longer guaranteed upon my return from maternity leave, and that she supported my interviewing for other roles at Google,” she writes.

When she later wrote her manager announcing that she was “experiencing concerning symptoms” and would likely be starting her leave, she says she received back “an angry email letting me know I wasn’t meeting the expectations of someone at my level, nor meeting the expectations of a manager.” She says that HR initiated an investigation but that she was ultimately told “that there was no evidence of discrimination.” The memo writer says she received a performance review while in her fourth month of maternity leave that indicated “needs improvement.” In conclusion, she writes, simply: “I stood up for a mother on my team and doing so sent me down a path that destroyed my career trajectory at Google.”

A Google spokesperson responded to the allegations by telling Motherboard, “We prohibit retaliation in the workplace and publicly share our very clear policy.”

The story detailed in the memo is horrifying, but fits into a depressing broader cultural context within the United States: The federal Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees certain employees twelve weeks unpaid leave, but few can afford to take it. Only a handful of states have passed paid parental leave laws; and in the rest of the country, companies are allowed to dispense paid parental leave (or not) however they see fit. As a result, paid parental leave is still treated as a luxury and privilege. So, yes, Google offers up to four-and-a-half months of paid parental leave, according to Inc. Such a policy should ideally be regarded as merely decent and civil—but it is instead heralded as groundbreaking and remarkable because, sadly, it is. It’s always worth taking an opportune moment to gawk at the absurdity of paid parental leave being declared as “generous,” as well as the unfortunately limited power of such policies within a society that sees it as such.

Paid parental leave policies are essential. They are also not nearly enough.

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