South Bay lawyer’s inside role in the Google sexual misconduct settlement
Ann Ravel at her home is Los Gatos on February 18. Photo by Aliyah Mohammed

Announcement of a $310 million settlement over Google’s treatment of sexual misconduct allegations against executives took on added significance for the South Bay’s Ann Ravel because it came the same day U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg lay in state.

Ravel, the first woman named Santa Clara County counsel in 1998, is a longtime advocate for women’s and minority rights in the workplace. She helped lead the legal team that brokered the deal with Google’s parent company, Alphabet, to reshape Google’s corporate culture.

“I, as a lawyer and doing many of these things when there were very few women or minorities in the practice of law, it was a struggle,” said Ravel, 71, a Los Gatos resident and former commissioner on the Federal Election Commission in the Obama Administration.

Ravel is a candidate for the District 15 state Senate seat running against fellow Democrat and Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese in the Nov. 3 election.

The settlement in the shareholder lawsuit, announced Sept. 25, requires Google to change practices around stock purchase plans, nondisclosure agreements, employee discipline and executive coaching.

Plaintiffs in the case do not receive any payouts; instead, the money will go toward a range of programs over 10 years, such as funding diversity and inclusion efforts in the community.

The deal also calls for creation of a Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council composed of outside experts that include a judge, a former Equal Employment Opportunity Commission member and a leading employment lawyer, as well as internal leaders.

Google, through outside counsel Boris Feldman, declined to discuss the settlement, but Ravel praised the tech giant for its willingness to undertake such a holistic approach to corporate change, covering every stage of employment, starting with recruiting.

Though shareholder derivative cases are not Ravel’s area of expertise, Southern California lawyer Frank Bottini brought Ravel’s firm, San Francisco-based Renne Public Law Group, on board as the case progressed to become more about board governance and treatment of employees.

The case clearly fell into Ravel’s wheelhouse and is in keeping with her long history of promoting equality in the workplace, said Louise Renne, founding partner of the Renne group. The two worked closely on the settlement with a mediator and attorneys representing Google, first during long days of in-person discussions, then, as pandemic shelter-in-place precautions took hold, through Zoom.

“Ann has always been at the forefront and a champion of women’s rights and minority rights,” Renne said.

The case was filed in Superior Court in Santa Clara County on Jan. 10, 2019, but the two women had been working on it for at least a month or two before that. They spent nearly two years on the case, which Renne said is typical.

Initially, Ravel said, she harbored concerns that reaching a settlement would be an uphill climb — not because of resistance from Google but because the case involved so many lawyers from other firms.

“I thought the requests were going to be insurmountable in many cases, and it would be hard for Google to do some of the things we wanted them to do, particularly what I cared about,” Ravel said.

Ultimately, the judge in Superior Court in Santa Clara County appointed Ravel and Renne as lead lawyers, along with Bottini and East Coast attorney Julie Reiser.

“I think that is because we had expertise in these areas, and because we had talked about how we were going to work together to actually make culture change,” Ravel said. “The judge believed we were going to accomplish the purposes of the litigation in a way the others were not.”

Ravel is a named attorney on two other shareholder derivative cases currently working their way through the legal system. Both aim to improve workplace opportunities for people of color.

Last month’s settlement, and Google, could be “like a beacon” in the corporate world — from Silicon Valley and beyond — for how to operate as a truly ethical, community-minded company, Ravel said.

Renne called the deal a landmark.

While the settlement is certainly significant because it provides clear consequences for sexual harassment and discrimination, the corporate world must stamp out bad behavior through “social control” — that is, de-normalization — if it is to make real progress, said Professor Jennifer A. Chatman of UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

“Formal mechanisms — rules, policies and procedures — can certainly help to reduce bad behavior, but these formal approaches are never enough to, in and of themselves, eliminate it,” Chatman said. “Social control pertains to the idea that norms are so strong that we adhere to them even when we are alone or think we can get away with them.  I don’t think we are there yet on sexual harassment.”

Ravel agrees with Chatman. The best part of this settlement, she said, is the diversity council requirement.

Plaintiff attorneys’ demand that the council include Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who will participate actively for the first year, “shows that this is truly about agreeing to culture change and is not just about sexual harassment,” Ravel said.

Contact Todd Perlman at [email protected]

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