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Google CEO Says Company Has Taken Hard Line on Sexual Harassment: ‘It Is a Different Place’

Google CEO Sundar Pichai claimed the company has “drawn a very, very hard line” on sexual harassment, and that “it is a different place” now than it was several years ago.

Pichai, speaking Thursday at the New York Times’ DealBook conference, was responding to the NYT report last week that several senior Google execs — including Android inventor Andy Rubin — were rewarded with large severance packages or promotions after they were accused of sexual misconduct.

“Obviously it’s been a difficult time here,” the Google chief said. “There’s anger and frustration within the company. We all feel it. I feel it, too.”

Pichai’s comments came as hundreds of Google employees worldwide staged walkouts Thursday to protest the internet giant’s handling of the cases. On stage at DealBook, he reiterated that he supports the employees who walked off the job.

Later in the talk Pichai said, “To be very clear, these incidents are from a few years ago” but acknowledged, “Moments like this show we don’t always get it right.”

Asked by an audience member if Google co-founder Larry Page, who is now CEO of parent company Alphabet, should be held accountable for the past treatment of executives in sex-harassment cases when Page was CEO of Google, Pichai dodged the question about his boss. “I work with Larry very closely,” he said, adding that he and Page “share the same goals.”

Last week, Pichai and Google’s head of HR said in an internal memo that Google had fired 48 employees for sexual misconduct within the last two years. Of those, 13 were “senior managers and above” and none got any severance payment, according to their memo.

Pichai cited the terminations of the 48 employees on Thursday, underscoring that none of them received a payout. In the wake of the Times story, he said, the first thing the company had to do was acknowledge and apologize for “past actions” but that “words alone aren’t enough.” He said Google will be taking additional “concrete steps” about what the company could do better but didn’t specify what those might be. Organizers of the Google Walkout for Real Change protest have called for company management to cease its policy of forced private arbitration in cases of sexual assault and harassment.

“I’m committed to doing better,” said Pichai, who was interviewed by the New York Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin.

One of the big issues, Pichai said: Google did not have “enough representation” of women in its senior ranks. “I think as a company, internally, we’ve evolved.”

Asked by Sorkin if Google has a toxic culture, Pichai said, “Sexual harassment is a societal problem. Google is a large company; we have had our share of issues. We are grappling with [this issue] as are many places.”

Details in the Times exposé included that Rubin’s exit package when he left Google in 2014 was worth $90 million — a sendoff that included well-wishes and high praise from Page. Rubin the previous year had “coerced” an employee into performing oral sex on him, an allegation Google found credible, according to the report. In a tweet, Rubin responded that he “never coerced a woman to have sex in a hotel room” and said the story included “wild exaggerations about my compensation.”

Pichai also was asked about James Damore, a Google engineer fired last year for “perpetuating gender stereotypes” after he wrote a memo suggesting that women are genetically less capable than men of working in high-tech. The CEO responded, “We have to balance freedom of expression with different things… We let people speak up, but we have a code of conduct.”

Meanwhile, Google has drawn criticism — including from its own employees — after the revelation of a secret project to develop a censored version of its search engine for China. Pichai said the project was to explore “what would our product look like [in China]… It was more of an experiment.” He reiterated that Google has no imminent plans to launch a search engine in the country.

A 14-year Google veteran, Pichai was named CEO in August 2015 with the formation of Alphabet, its parent holding company. He previously led product, engineering, and research for all of Google’s products and platforms.

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