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Sexism and Gender Equality Made Alphabet’s Shareholder Meeting Squirm

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Alphabet CFO Ruth Porat Photograph by Michael Kovac—Getty Images

Very few executives climb to the heights that Ruth Porat, CFO of Alphabet, has. After a successful run as CFO of Morgan Stanley, she became the CFO of the world’s second-most valuable company in 2015. She’s credited with bringing a sense of fiscal responsibility to the moonshot company, playing a key role in its share buyback program, and restructuring it from Google to Alphabet (GOOG).

That didn’t stop an Alphabet shareholder from directing a question today to “the lady CFO,” on stage at the company’s annual shareholder meeting. Alphabet’s other top execs reacted by laughing nervously and shifting in their seats on stage.

It wasn’t until a few questions later that another shareholder pointed out that Porat is not the “lady CFO” but simply, the CFO.

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Gender equality came up repeatedly at Alphabet’s shareholder meeting today. Earlier this year, Alphabet announced it had eliminated the pay disparity between its male and female workers. But some of the company’s shareholders believe that the company should include bonuses and stock-based compensation in those disclosures. The issue was presented to Alphabet in a formal proposal, which was declined.

All of the proposals from shareholders were voted down. In that way, Alphabet’s shareholder meeting was an exercise in futility. Thanks to the company’s dual-class stock structure, only owners of the voting class stock, which is largely comprised of senior management, can actually vote on proposals. It was no surprise that the handful of proposals put forth by management all passed. The shareholders’ proposals, which every year include one asking Alphabet to grant voting rights to all shareholders, were roundly defeated.

So if the whole thing is for show, why do shareholders bother showing up? For one, the free stuff—Alphabet swag and lunch. More than any other topic, shareholder questions to Alphabet’s top execs centered around the free food and the swag. One investor complained she didn’t get a hat or a mug, and so Google head of HR Lazlo Bock was dispatched to go get hats for everyone. One shareholder decried the “virtual reality baloney” of HP’s online shareholder meetings, thanking the executives for the free breakfast. Nobody mentioned Nest, a $3.2 billion acquisition from 2014 which just lost its CEO amid scathing reports.

Google Ventures President: There’s Obviously a Gender Problem

Then the topic of gender disparity came up again. Alphabet Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt brought out Bock, who reiterated Alphabet’s pay gap announcement. Schmidt noted, somewhat awkwardly, that Alphabet’s executives spent a lot of time “convincing ourselves that we were always right on this question” that a diverse workforce would lead to better investor returns.

“Speaking as your male executive chairman, I celebrate the others that are male and female in the company,” he added. Especially the voting members.