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A woman whispers in another persons
AP Images/Jeff Daly
“Its all on the spreadsheet.”
AVATARS AT THE GATE

Your colleagues are probably sharing a secret Google doc right now

By Lila MacLellan

If it hasn’t happened to you already, expect it any day now: Quietly, you’ll receive a link to an anonymous Google Doc or Google Sheet. As you click through, you’ll find colleagues at your company—or in your industry more widely—are sharing information that social norms, or liability concerns, have forced underground. It might be who is earning what, or which manager is thought to be too grabby at company happy hours, or worse.

These do-it-yourself solutions for sharing sensitive materials are on the rise, because traditional sources for job and salary data like Glassdoor and LinkedIn are failing to deliver the information most critical to today’s job seekers: Is the workplace fair? Are employees of color paid less than white peers doing the same job? And is it safe?

Examples of “Google-Doc activism”  are bubbling up into the news with increasing frequency. Not every case is about a workplace issue. At Yale University, for instance, female students are using anonymous Google docs to track the names of sexually aggressive men on campus. Google docs have also been commandeered for political organizing, especially since the 2016 election. But a larger number of the docs we’re hearing about are related to jobs and work.

Among the most famous is the “shitty media men” list, circulated in the late fall, in which women—hiding behind the aliases of the weird anteaters and jackals Google Docs assigns to anonymous users—named their coworkers who, they claimed, behaved like sexual predators. It was quickly followed by another document in which women in academia reported cases of harassment and abuse, often from colleagues or bosses, but in this case without naming names. Last fall, more than 100 women who had accused movie mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct used a formerly public Google doc to collect accusations against him in one place.

With its couldn’t-be-more-basic user interface, the Google doc has also become a handy tool for crowdsourcing salaries. In January, writers and actors in the television industry chose to organize their pay rates by tapping the hive mind; someone made an anonymous doc and soon hundreds of assistants, writers and executives were posting their pay per week, or per episode, on it.

These spreadsheets, which also indicate the gender of the respondents, and whether or not they identify as a person of color, were circulated through social media, jumping between networks of friends. Melissa Silverstein, publisher of the Women and Hollywood blog and artistic director of New York’s annual Athena Film Festival, told Variety that it was an example of how a young generation, inspired by #MeToo to speak up about injustices, were changing the ethos of the industry.

Of course, Glassdoor, an 800-employee strong business, exists to fulfill the public need for this very type of data sharing. It publishes job ads, but it’s better known as a forum where employees anonymously review employers, spilling the details about their pay, or posting sometimes entertaining, sometimes disturbing descriptions about what happens around the office, including harassment, or consensual sex, or drugs.

But while Glassdoor contains nearly 38 million online reviews, critiquing more than 740,000 companies, the Google doc method offers other advantages. It grants a sense of anonymity that feels more secure than any social media site, including Twitter, where even the alias of the former head of the FBI can eventually be revealed. Only Google itself could track down the identity or IP address of an unnamed user in a Google doc, and the company would presumably only do that in an exceptional circumstance.

What’s more, unlike Twitter or Facebook, Google sheets allow a person to easily see all the data points in one place, making it a cinch for a person to create calculations on their own spreadsheets, if they don’t already exist on the shared one.

And unlike Glassdoor, a Google doc comes without gatekeepers. On Glassdoor, the company decides which types of information will be displayed and publicized. By contrast, a Google doc has no master except its owner, who can dictate what types of information they’ll gather, knowing what’s appropriate for their stated purpose or occupation.

This freedom gives the docs an edge: Gender and racial diversity, or inclusion more generally, is a dominant topic in the work world right now. While Glassdoor collects data about the gender of its users, and analyzes pay gaps in its aggregated data, it does not display gender in its reviews or next to self-reported salaries. Right now, it doesn’t even collect a user’s racial identity.

Still, Glassdoor says it isn’t threatened by the rise of home-built solutions. “We obviously believe we have the most robust data on the employment market place in the US,” Scott Dobroski, a Glassdoor spokesperson, tells Quartz. He also says the company welcomes more transparency in any form.

Google docs, to him, are just one more way people are sharing their salaries, something that’s happening “everywhere,” he adds, including on Twitter and Facebook. At marches, Dobroski has seen salaries posted on signs. He recalls seeing one woman’s salary written on her body, next to that of her male colleague, who earned more.

It’s too early to say whether anonymous spreadsheets will bring about demonstrable, large-scale change, or if they will even nudge a pay gap within a single organization. But Erica Baker, a former Google engineer and creator of the the first headline-making collaborative spreadsheet, at Google, said her 2015 spreadsheet experiment was effective for individuals.

The docs also provide an intangible reward: the sense that employees have power as a collective.

As companies like Citi launch large-scale audits of their pay patterns around gender or race, there’s a chance that fewer workers will feel the urgent need to start an unofficial probe of their own.

But no matter how transparent companies become, there will always be a need for independently sourced, unbiased information. Until Glassdoor and other sites up their games, Google docs are probably here to stay.