Cultural Issues Behind the Disparity
Last week it was reported that many Google employees and others in the tech and academic communities were furious over the sudden exit from Google of Timnit Gebru, a pioneer in the study of ethics in artificial intelligence. She coauthored a paper that highlighted how poorly commercial facial-recognition software fared when attempting to classify women and people of color. Their work triggered widespread awareness of issues common in AI today, particularly when the technology is tasked with identifying anything about human beings.
Gebru resigned because of an email she sent to Google’s Brain Women and Allies internal mailing list about the lack of diversity at Google. Gebru is the cofounder of the group Black in AI. Only 3.7 percent of Google employees are black. Google claimed her email reflected “behavior that is inconsistent with the expectations of a Google manager.”
In the email she first published in the newsletter Platformer, Gebru wrote that she felt “constantly dehumanized” at Google and expressed dismay over the lack of diversity at the company.
“Because there is zero accountability, there is no incentive to 39 percent women: your life gets worse when you start advocating for underrepresented people, you start making the other leaders upset when they don’t want to give you good ratings during calibration. There is no way more documents or more conversations will achieve anything,” she wrote.
Just after Gebru’s initial tweet, coworker’s and others quickly shared support for her online, including Margaret Mitchell, who had been Google’s team leader at Google. She said in her tweet: “Today dawns a new horrible-life changing loss in a year of horrible life-changing losses. I can’t well articulate the pain of losing [Gebru] as my co-lead. I’ve been able to excel because of her—like so many others. I’m mostly in shock.”
Sherrilyn Hill, president and director-counsel of NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, tweeted, “I have learned so much from her about AI bias. What a disaster.”
Signatures of more than 1,300 Google employees and over 1,600 supporters within the academic and AI fields followed.
The ethical issues of Gebru’s story include:
- Is what Google has done a form of censorship?
- The culture at Google may be a contributing factor in the lack of diversity.
- The culture at Google may be to not act on warning signs of discrimination raised by employees.
- Does Google have a whistleblowing process?
As the saying goes, this isn’t the first rodeo for Google. Back in 2017, James Damore, a Google engineer, filed a lawsuit against the company for discrimination after he challenge the lack of diversity at Google. Even though Damore subsequently dropped his lawsuit, that doesn’t stop recognizing that where there’s fuel, there’s fire.
Looking at the bigger picture, the problem of a lack of diversity is endemic to the technology industry. It seems to be part of its culture. Tech companies might say that there’s been a paucity of qualified women and blacks to hire and promote perhaps because they don’t enter the industry in the same percentages as white employees. It’s true this could be related to a lack of programming skills. Programming has been a white-dominated industry for many years. The bottom line is that tech companies are still lagging when it comes to diversity and inclusion.
According to the available data from 10 major U.S. tech companies gathered between 2014 and 2019, the percentage of women in these workforces increased less than 2%. The reports that specified gender and race said most of these women were White. The gender data doesn’t consider transgender or gender nonconforming employees, and only one of the 10 companies reported nonbinary employee demographics.
The percentage of Black employees increased less than 3% during the same period. The number of Hispanic employees increased about 1% and the number of Indigenous employees decreased about .01%. The diversity data shows that Asian employees made up about 30% of tech workforces in 2019.
Why is diversity and inclusion so important? According to a report from the Boston Consulting Group, companies with more diverse leadership teams report higher innovation revenues.
It is disconcerting that even in 2020, the tech industry lags behind others in diversity and inclusion. One would think that they would go out of their way to hire underrepresented groups even if it takes a little extra training to make them more effective employees.
In the spirit of the holiday season, I am giving away signed copies of my book to the first ten people who contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org and provide a mailing address. May your 2021 be better than 2020. Let's face it, it can't be worse!
Posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on December 1o, 2020. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.