The company that championed the idea of moonshots—ambitious ideas that can “make the world a radically better place”—is still struggling to make incremental change when it comes to diversifying its ranks of black, Latinx, and female employees. But as the conversation around diversity in Silicon Valley has evolved and grown more sophisticated, so has Google’s approach to the problem.
For the first time, Google’s annual diversity report, released Thursday, included data on hiring, attrition, and the intersection of race and gender, which exposed telling patterns. In 2017, black employees left Google at the highest rates, followed by Latinx employees; but the attrition numbers also showed that Google was better at retaining female employees than male employees. Google also said it made gains in hiring Asian women.
Google focused on intersectionality because studies show that diversity improves faster when employers focus on the most underrepresented demographic, which in Google’s case is women of color, Danielle Brown, Google’s vice president and chief diversity officer, told WIRED. “It helps us really highlight where we are and aren’t making progress and ensuring that we don’t leave anyone behind,” she says.
Brown joined the company in 2017, not long before a screed against Google’s diversity efforts written by engineer James Damore went viral. Damore’s memo argued that biological differences accounted for the dearth of female engineers. He was later fired for “advancing harmful gender stereotypes.” In January, he filed a lawsuit against Google alleging that the company was discriminating against white men and conservatives.
Despite Damore’s complaints, the report, which covers the year 2017, shows little change in the makeup of Google’s workforce. Globally, Google’s workforce is 69.1 percent male, down slightly from 70 percent in 2014, the first year that Google made the data available. In the US, Google’s workforce is 53.1 percent white and 36.3 percent Asian, but only 2.5 percent black, 3.6 percent Hispanic and Latinx, and 4.2 percent multiracial. That’s little changed from 2014, when the workforce was 61 percent white, 30 percent Asian, 2 percent black, 3 percent Latinx and 4 percent multiracial.
Google did report more progress in diversifying leadership ranks, compared with new hires. The percentage of women leaders at Google globally is now 25.5 percent, up 4.7 percentage points from 2014.
The report comes amid intensified debate over the composition of workforces at prosperous and influential Silicon Valley tech companies. Google has been riven by internal debate over diversity around Damore’s memo, including complaints by diversity advocates that they have been harassed by Damore’s supporters. A former YouTube employee accused the company in a lawsuit of illegally using quotas favoring women and minorities. At the same time, Google faces a class action lawsuit alleging systemic bias against female employees in pay and promotion, a pattern that the Department of Labor has also highlighted in its investigation of systemic pay gap.
Brown says Google understands the need for change. In January, she says Google adopted a new strategy aiming to grow the representation of women globally and of black and Latinx employees in the US to “reach or exceed available talent pools in all levels.” She did not put a time frame on the goal. Brown says the strategy also recognizes that Google can’t just focus on hiring, and must place equal emphasis on development, progression, and retention.
Defining the talent pool is an issue. Historically, hiring at tech companies has favored certain schools and types of candidates, while executives blame poor workforce diversity on a “pipeline” problem of available talent.
Brown says Google now calculates available talent by looking at skill, qualification, and Census data, “as well as seeing what percentage of people have those degrees and skills and who is out there and in the marketplace.”
Part of the new strategy involves integrating Google’s leadership in these efforts. Brown says managers have been given milestones, which she described as “aspirational goals,” for their own workforces. CEO Sundar Pichai now receives these workforce numbers every other week, “so we now know what’s happening in real time in product areas, and where we’re falling short.”
Brown says Google is also encouraging and assisting hiring managers to invest in “building their networks and social capital” across both sexes and all races and ethnicities, before a job opens up.
Damore said he wrote his screed in response to the company’s unconscious bias training, which he said encouraged Google to hire for political correctness, not talent. Earlier this year, one black female Google employee told WIRED that Google’s training on unconscious bias focuses on interpersonal relationships and hurt feelings, rather than addressing discrimination and inequality, which signals to workers that diversity is “just another box to check,” she said.
Google seems to be making changes in that area. Brown’s report describes a series called Decoding Race that grapples more directly with those issues. “We had 15,000 Googlers participate, so we knew it was resonating and making sense,” Brown says.