Google Loses Gender Discrimination Trial

Leah Shepherd By Leah Shepherd October 25, 2023

​A jury recently ordered Google to pay $1.15 million to a New York executive who claimed the company discriminated against her based on her gender, retaliated against her when she complained, and denied her a promotion that went to a less-qualified man. The jury found Google guilty of sex discrimination and retaliation, but not guilty of violating New York's pay discrimination law.

Ulku Rowe, a Google Cloud engineering director, said the tech giant hired her at a lower level with lower pay than men with less experience who were hired in similar roles at the same time. She also said her supervisor treated her differently from male colleagues by ignoring her emails and excluding her from certain staff meetings. She sued under the federal Equal Pay Act, New York's Equal Pay Law and New York's Human Rights Act.


In November 2017 and November 2018, Rowe complained to HR that she was "under-leveled" at hire. Google conducted an internal investigation and found her leveling process was not discriminatory and was based on her industry experience and knowledge, according to court documents.

She applied for a promotion in 2018 and didn't get it. She expressed interest in a different promotion in 2020, but was told she would not be considered, according to court documents.

For the first promotion, Google said Rowe was not selected because she was not the preferred candidate based on feedback from her interviewers, and the search was later paused due to changes in Google Cloud. Rowe said there was no negative feedback from her interviewers until later, when additional feedback was requested from her interviewers less than three weeks after her complaint of discrimination. For the second promotion, Google said Rowe wasn't considered because of her lack of experience managing a sales team, according to court documents.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York rejected Google's motion for summary judgment in September 2022, so the case went to trial.

Rowe argued that the pay disparity between male colleagues and herself wasn't based on seniority, merit, or any factors related to job performance or business necessity. Google argued that she didn't identify any comparable male employees who performed equal work but got paid more. It said a male comparator she cited performed a job with greater scope and complexity than hers.

"We are pleased that the jury unanimously found that Ms. Rowe has been paid and leveled fairly from the time she was hired to date, and that she was not subsequently denied any promotions—with no violation of New York's pay equity laws," said Courtenay Mencini, a spokesperson for Google.

"We disagree with the jury's finding that Ms. Rowe was discriminated against on account of her gender or that she was retaliated against for raising concerns about her pay, level and gender. We prohibit retaliation in the workplace and publicly share our very clear policy," Mencini said.

Google said it runs a pay equity analysis every year to ensure salaries, bonuses and equity awards are fair.

In 2022, Google paid $118 million to settle a class-action gender discrimination lawsuit. Three former Google employees said the company paid female software engineers less than male software engineers. The class consisted of women who worked for Google in California from September 2013 to September 2017.

Tips for Employers

The federal Equal Pay Act and many state laws prohibit pay discrimination on the basis of sex. Employers can pay similarly situated employees differently for comparable work, if there's a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for it, such as a seniority system, a merit system, or a difference in experience or credentials, according to Jean Back, an attorney with Schwabe in Portland, Ore.

Some states prohibit employers from asking job candidates about their prior salary, but others don't, Back said. "Pay equity laws are put into place to prevent" pay discrimination that results from certain demographic groups being better at negotiating higher salaries during job interviews, she noted. "That pay equity problem will follow people through their employment, which is why it's so important to get it right in the beginning."

HR and employers "should learn from this case that some women may need extra mentoring in terms of their promotability and the art of negotiation," said Deb Boelkes, founder of Business World Rising in Jacksonville, Fla., and author of Women on Top: What's Keeping You From Executive Leadership? (Business World Rising LLC, 2021).

"To be most effective, mentors should be at least somewhat familiar with the organizational culture and the decision-making personalities involved. Mentors must also be candid and straightforward with women when discussing the issues and circumstances that could be undermining the female candidate's promotability and/or negotiating prowess."

Employers should conduct pay equity audits that cover hiring, retention and promotions, Back recommended. "It's an interesting tool employers can use to level the playing field," she said.

Companies can use algorithms and data analytics to identify and mitigate biases against certain demographic groups, paving the way for fair and inclusive hiring and promotion processes, said Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio, an attorney and professor at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass.

Some research shows discrimination is worsening in the tech industry. The percentage of tech professionals who said they experienced gender discrimination jumped from 21 percent in 2021 to 26 percent in 2022, according to a survey from tech career marketplace Dice.



Hire the best HR talent or advance your own career.

Member Benefit: Ask-An-Advisor Service

SHRM's HR Knowledge Advisors offer guidance and resources to assist members with their HR inquiries.

SHRM's HR Knowledge Advisors offer guidance and resources to assist members with their HR inquiries.



HR Daily Newsletter

News, trends and analysis, as well as breaking news alerts, to help HR professionals do their jobs better each business day.