In September 2018—not long after Google removed its flippantly simple “don’t be evil” slogan from its code of conduct—artificial intelligence ethics researcher Timnit Gebru began working at the storied tech company.
“There [were] so many red flags,” Gebru says. “I was fighting constant battles.”
Barely more than two years later, Gebru was dismissed by Google. Her firing in December made waves across the tech industry, sparking conversations about diversity in tech and what an inclusive work environment does not look like. Though that conversation is evergreen in Silicon Valley, Gebru, a respected researcher, became the face of tech equity—and the shortcomings thereof.
She’s spending the start of 2021 working on policy recommendations to address the industry’s diversity ills. But Gebru is also clear that none of those recommendations can replace tech company leaders taking responsibility for the culture in their workplaces and simultaneously working to change that culture.
“If you are just doing what you’re supposed to do, with whatever the current structure is, you’re going to perpetuate it,” Gebru said. “Racism is a well-oiled machine; it requires a lot of work to dismantle it.”
Her hopes for tech are simple on their face. To Gebru, equity looks like “having an environment where people from all backgrounds can bring their full selves to work without constantly being marginalized and devalued.” But getting there will be hard and complicated, especially for those in the midst of it.
Across the tech industry women, Black, Latinx and Native American workers remain a relative rarity at big tech companies. At Google, for instance, more than 93 percent of workers are white or Asian, meaning other sectors comprise less than 7 percent of the workforce, according to the company’s 2020 diversity report. When broken down by race, new hires roughly tracked those statistics. Men made up 68 percent of the workforce.
Gebru knows firsthand what it’s like to be a woman of color in the tech industry, and she says she felt devalued.
While working at Google, Gebru says managers would often fail to include her in emails and invite her to relevant committee meetings. When she spoke up about it, senior managers, including many white women, would criticize the tone of her messages rather than acknowledge what she was saying.
“If I talked about workplace issues, or harassment issues… they would see me as the problem,” Gebru says.
And though diversity is a known and well-documented tech industry problem, the current conversation around equity seems to suggest people of color are asking for charity or special privileges, Gebru says.
“We’re actually asking for the most basic thing,” she says. “I’m asking for you not to leave me off of emails. That’s basic.”
For her, and for many who watched along attentively on Twitter to witness Gebru’s firing almost in real-time last month, the situation is a proof-point of the problem in tech.
But the AI researcher is adamant that corporations will not suddenly take on the work to change their own. She wants labor protection laws to enable workers to speak up about company culture and says more tech workers should be unionized.
For women and people of color who decide to speak up about similar treatment, Gebru offers a suggestion until or if those goals come to fruition: think about how to control the narrative and head off potential employer gaslighting and get a coalition of supporters.
“These corporations often encourage you to talk about your individual issues and not intervene on behalf of other people,” Gebru says. “I think that’s a method of dividing and conquering.”
New Year’s resolutions aren’t for everyone. But for Silicon Valley influencers looking to the other side of this pandemic, they’re a start.
South Bay thinkers from four sectors—arts, business, tech and politics—were asked to chart the road to an improved future over the next 12 months. It’s likely this group won’t RSVP to the same post-pandemic happy hour. And yet, their New Year’s resolutions all centered around a singular philosophy: 2021 is a year for equity.
That’s not a new idea in Silicon Valley, where advocates have long criticized how the region could featherbed some of the world’s richest people alongside a staggering homeless population and struggling service class. But 2021, the year of rebuilding, might be the best shot the region has had to fix some of those imbalances, our subjects say.
In this four-part series, our leaders share how they hope to make it happen. This is part one.