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ILLUSTRATION BY HANNA BARCZYK

You can learn a lot about a protest from its signs. “Don’t be evil,” was among the most popular ones carried by Google employees as they walked off the job this week to protest sexual harassment and pay inequality. Printed in bright primary colours, the sign made reference both to the company’s famous logo and its founding motto. That motto seems almost quaint today, when “please come this way for evil lessons” is more the prevailing ethos.

As Google employees staged their walkouts around the world, including in Montreal and Toronto, one woman in California carried a sign that read, “I reported and he got promoted.” Another popular one said, “Happy to quit for $90-million – no sexual harassment required.”

That, of course, was a reference to a blockbuster report in The New York Times, which revealed Google’s recent history of paying and staying silent about three top executives who’d been accused of workplace harassment. In the wake of the Times report, Google revealed that it had fired 48 employees for harassment in the past four years, 13 of them senior managers (the company said those dismissals had not been accompanied by payouts.)

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The revelations about the payouts may have been the final straw, but you got the sense that Google employees had been fuming for a while over the issues of inequality, harassment and injustice. What else could have led them to walk out of their offices, which in my jealous imagination are utopias filled with napping dogs and free organic snacks?

When they did walk – with many male colleagues in their midst – they came prepared with a list of demands that could serve as a road map for the way forward. Workplaces around the world are struggling to come to terms with a fundamentally changed culture, in which women will no longer put up with harassment, but also expect a bedrock of decency and equality to build their careers on. That is, more people who look like them at the top, and a commitment to fairness in pay that is not as fleeting and ephemeral as the flickering of a computer screen.

The Google employees’ list of demands includes “a commitment to end pay and opportunity inequality,” as well a public report into the company’s harassment history, an end to the forced arbitration that keeps misconduct complaints a secret and more powers for the company’s diversity officer. In other words, they’re looking for real, structural change in an industry that usually just pays lip service to inclusion and pay equity.

Last year, for example, the U.S. Department of Labour took Google to court to get the company to release employees’ information for its investigation into what it said were “widespread” pay disparities across the board. Google denies these disparities exist, but at the same time, a group of women is fighting to launch a class-action lawsuit alleging that they suffered pay discrimination while working at the company. Former employees at Microsoft are pursuing a similar class-action suit.

As Emily Chang points out in her excellent book about tech culture, Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley, when women are shut out of sharing economic power and leadership roles, they’re vulnerable to other abuses. Her research shows that companies led by women get only 2 per cent of venture capital funding; at Google, only 26 per cent of executives are women. The percentage of women in computing jobs in the United States has actually fallen since 1991, from 36 per cent to 25 per cent. She writes, “women have been systematically excluded from the greatest wealth creation in the history of the world and denied a voice in the rapid remodelling of our global culture.”

The Google walkout served to address two other criticisms of the #MeToo movement: One, that it offers no “third path” for change, apart from taking men’s livelihoods away, and second that only the concerns of relatively well-off women were being taken seriously. Now there is another path – protest, demands and collective action for meaningful change. As well, the walkout offers a template for women in other industries who are equally frustrated but unsure how to move forward.

In fact, such a walkout has already occurred. It was less well-documented, but in many ways even braver – and the signs were just as good. In September, McDonald’s workers staged demonstrations in at least 10 cities across the United States, to protest sexual harassment in their workplaces. Whether they were chanting in Spanish in Los Angeles, or carrying signs of a sad-eyed Ronald McDonald next to the slogan “Time’s Up Clown,” the fast-food workers were battling an industry that both underpays and underscrutinizes.

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The McDonald’s harassment protest was backed by the Fight for $15 workers’ movement for improved pay. The two justice movements are inextricably linked: With improved economic power comes the freedom to stand up against crappy bosses and the crappy policies they fail to enforce.

The protests in the United States remind me of how far we still need to go in Canada. Yes, the federal government has introduced pay-equity legislation, but it won’t take effect for three to four years, and even then it only covers federally regulated sectors. The pay transparency legislation that was supposed to debut in Ontario in January may well be delayed, thanks to the new Conservative government.

Meanwhile, the picture for women at the top of the Canadian business world remains – well, “bleak” is the word Canadian Press used to describe that particular landscape in a report released this summer. Not one of TSX 60 companies had a female CEO, the investigation revealed, and less than 8 per cent of top management roles were filled by women.

Perhaps, ladies, it’s time to take a page from our Google and McDonald’s sisters and think about protest as a way to get things done. And we’d get to make signs.

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