Do you think, over the past decade, that tech companies such as Google have become increasingly fair, friendly, and generally equitable places for women, people of color, and other minorities to work? I’ve worked in that industry over that decade, spending more than half of it at Google. If your answer to my question is yes, you are mistaken. Sadly, with COVID-19 implications, there’s risk of losing even the modest gains made.
Google recently reported minimal improvement to its previous dismal record with regard to hiring and retaining women and people of color. Google failed to mention that at the same time, as discovered by an NBC news investigation, it had scaled back its diversity and inclusion training programs. Given the number of companies that look up to Google as a leader in setting workplace policies and conditions, Google’s dwindling investment in building a diverse workforce is alarming; but that’s not the only reason for concern.
Lack of diversity within the tech industry impacts all of us. You almost certainly engage with technology products and services hundreds of times each day. The scarcity of diversity in the tech workplace severely limits product innovation because as many research studies have revealed, a highly homogeneous workforce results in products that satisfy the needs of a highly homogeneous group of users. That same homogeneity encourages, or at best ignores, the slide into discriminatory experiences. Google learned this in 2015, when the artificial intelligence built into Google Photos identified and labeled black people as “Gorillas.”
Like most minority tech workers, I have a few scars from my work experiences. In fact, I’m in the third year of a fight to recover from the devastating impact of pregnancy discrimination I experienced as a Google employee. Over that time I’ve had the opportunity to ponder the tech industry’s inability to make significant and lasting progress in the hiring and retention of even a minimally diverse workforce. The current strategy includes targeting more diverse candidates in recruiting and implementing diversity and inclusion training. These actions alone fall woefully short of making a meaningful difference.
What’s missing is real accountability in response to the widespread and illegal workplace actions — discrimination, harassment, retaliation — which research shows is why so many minority tech workers eventually opt out of working in tech. Real accountability would start with tech companies supporting the unionization of their workforce.
In an equitable environment, employees fight illegal workplace misconduct without fear of reprisal. Employers are held responsible and accountable for illegal activities. In actuality, tech companies today routinely retaliate against those who speak out because there’s virtually no oversight to prevent them from doing so. Case in point: a memo in which 45 Google employees detail their retaliation stories.
State and federal agencies receive complaints from employees when laws are broken, but these agencies have minimal funding and grossly inadequate resources. The few investigations that do take place following complaints typically last many months and often years; and they rarely result in anything more than a wrist-slap to an offending company. Lawsuits are a theoretical option, but seriously — what individual has a chance of a fair fight against a tech giant like Google, with its limitless financial and legal resources? And while some companies, like Google, create their own internal investigation programs to deal with workplace misconduct, these programs are led by human resources, an organization that exists for no purpose other than shielding the company and its executives from accountability.
Which is why the tech industry needs unions. Unions provide employees with an advocate, not employed by their company, to appropriately intervene in response to reports of workplace misconduct. As Google’s reducing its diversity efforts confirms, without unions tech companies have little incentive to put an end to discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. Unions have long been the one sure way for employees to guarantee for themselves not only a fair day’s pay for a day’s work, but also equitable and harassment-free working conditions.
In defending its diversity and inclusion efforts, Google CEO Sundar Pichai stated last week that “Diversity is a foundational value for us.” Empty words, Sundar. I challenge you instead to put your vast resources where your mouth is. Lead the way by being one of the first tech CEOs to support unionization to combat the common discrimination, harassment and retaliation against tech workers that so often stifles workplace diversity and innovation.
Previously published on “Equality Includes You”, a Medium publication.
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