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Google’s diversity record shows women and minorities left behind

May 28, 2014 at 6:21 PM EDT
In a new internal report released exclusively to the NewsHour, Google reveals that women and minorities have been largely left behind in their tech workforce. The disclosure comes amid increasing pressure for Silicon Valley companies to disclose their records on diversity. Gwen Ifill talks to Google’s Laszlo Bock, Vivek Wadhwa of Stanford University and Telle Whitney of the Anita Borg Institute.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: As the U.S. technology sector has boomed, women and minorities have largely been left behind. That is especially true for one familiar tech giant, Google, which, along with other Silicon Valley companies, has increasingly been pressured to disclose its record on diversity.

In a new internal report released tonight exclusively to the NewsHour, the company reveals, although 30 percent of Google’s total global work force is comprised of women, only 17 percent of the workers who hold tech jobs are female.

The numbers are even more stark among minorities working in the United States. Latinos make up just 2 percent of the tech work force, African-Americans 1 percent. Asians are more fully represented, comprising about 34 percent.

We take a look at the significance of this for Google and the wider industry with Laszlo Bock, who oversees hiring at Google as the Senior Vice President of People Operations, Telle Whitney, the president of the Anita Borg Institute, which seeks to promote more women in tech, and Vivek Wadhwa, an entrepreneur, author and critic on these issues, who is a fellow on corporate governance at Stanford University.

Welcome to you all.

Laszlo Bock, why publicize this now?

LASZLO BOCK, Google: Well, Gwen, to be honest, we kind of felt we had to.

You know, we hadn’t shared the information in the past because we were worried about how it would look and maybe people would think of Google differently, and, quite frankly, because we knew we would not look good. And we were worried about litigation.

And what we, after much discussion, kind of realized a number of months ago was that the right thing to do would be to share this information, because we have an issue. Our industry has an issue. And the only way to have an honest conversation about this is to start by actually sharing the facts.

GWEN IFILL: You have said in the past that this was a competitive reason why you didn’t disclose this. Now, other companies have said the same thing too.

As you began to compile these numbers, did you get to the bottom of why they exist like this, why the numbers are so bad?

LASZLO BOCK: Yes, you know, there’s a number of things explaining why the numbers are actually so bad.

Part of it is, if you look at women, women aren’t taking a lot of computer science courses. And the culture of the tech industry at a lot of places isn’t that great for women. We have been working on this a lot at Google, and particularly in the last year working on bringing more unconscious bias training to our employees and more awareness of this.

For African-Americans and Hispanics, the conditions are even worse. It is a smaller population. Even fewer percentage of people with — from those ethnicities actually earn degrees in computer science. And the industry is that much less friendly.

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GWEN IFILL: Telle Whitney, does this square with your investigations, your findings, your monitoring of the situation has been?

TELLE WHITNEY, Anita Borg Institute: Well, first, I want to applaud Google for talking about the numbers publicly. It’s really important.

Accountability is at the heart of change. And our top — our Top Company for Women in Computing ABIE Award, our norm is between 20 and 23 percent, which is still lower than would you want it to be.

GWEN IFILL: Well, and this is even lower than that. So what do you think the reasons are?

TELLE WHITNEY: Well, I think it depends on where you are going to recruit.

If you look at the top research universities, you see about 12 percent women. If you look at computer science departments more broadly, it’s between 18 and 20 percent for bachelor’s and master’s. So I think that reaching out more broadly to a lot more people is key to making the change.

GWEN IFILL: Vivek Wadhwa, how do these numbers strike you? And do you agree with the reasons behind them?

VIVEK WADHWA, Stanford University: The numbers are low. And I think Google can and should be doing a lot more.

But, as Telle says, we applaud them for doing it, because there is a systemic problem in Silicon Valley. The fact that one of the leading companies in Silicon Valley is now disclosing data, it will put pressure on other companies to do the same. And then there will be pressure on them to fix this problem, which is amazing.

So, we made major, major progress by getting this far. So I applaud Google for what they just did over here.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you this, Vivek Wadhwa, staying with you for a moment.

We have known that the numbers weren’t good, even though we didn’t have actual numbers to put to it. Why wasn’t action taken before? Is it just external pressure? I know Jesse Jackson has been visiting these tech companies and telling them to straighten up and fly right. Is that what it takes?

VIVEK WADHWA: Frankly, Silicon Valley is a boys club. It’s like a frat club run wild, is what I often say, because you have young kids hiring other young kids. And they don’t have the sensitivity that big companies do.

They don’t understand the importance of diversity. They don’t understand why they have to be inclusive and so on. So, Silicon Valley has — now it’s time for Silicon Valley to grow up and to start behaving responsibly.

Now, again, Google is a wonderful company. I don’t want to criticize them here, because they are doing such good things. However, there’s a systemic problem in Silicon Valley with — with minorities and women being left out.

GWEN IFILL: Laszlo Bock, as you look at these numbers, is the problem in the pipeline? You talk about the number of women and minorities getting these technical degrees. Or is the problem in the workplace, a hostile work environment for women and for people of color?

LASZLO BOCK: Well, I think there’s a couple aspects to the problem.

One is absolutely in the workplace. Most people are not overtly sexist or racist or homophobic, but we’re human beings. And, as a result, we like people who are like us, who watch the same shows, who like the same food, who have the same backgrounds. So we bring this unconscious bias to everything we do.

And what we see in every workplace and what we have seen in Google is the risk that there is an impact. So part of it is in the workplace. And, as an employer, we feel we have an opportunity to actually help people come to grips with what unconscious biases they have.

More broadly, though, you have an educational system problem. There is an absolute pipeline problem. I remember my team came to me one year and was ecstatic because we had hired 50 percent of the black Ph.D.s in computer science one year.

GWEN IFILL: Which was what, two of them?

LASZLO BOCK: It was — it was one.

And the other person went to work for Microsoft. In the U.S., the National Science Foundation says 0.7 percent of Ph.D.s in computer science go to African-Americans. And that’s not enough, because there’s a lot of brilliant people out there of every color, and stripe, and creed.

And what we need to do and what we have started doing is partnering more closely with places like Howard University, as well as with the College Board on getting K-12 education improved to bring more people into the pipeline, because we want to solve a bigger problem than just Google’s recruiting.

GWEN IFILL: Telle Whitney, there was a larger percentage of women going into this — this sector in 1987 than there is now. Where have the women gone?

TELLE WHITNEY: Well, I graduated in that time period.

And it has gone down rather dramatically. I will tell you that we know that women leave technology at twice the rate of men. And, right now, there’s a pretty serious image problem in terms of what we do. But there is a big change right now. There are universities, like Harvey Mudd College, that has 40 percent women in computer science.

Stanford and other places are making big strides, so that we’re — things are changing dramatically right now. And what we really need is for companies like Google to make the place, once they come work there, to stay. Retention is as important as the pipeline.

GWEN IFILL: Vivek Wadhwa, is this true? Is this characteristic of the industry? And do you accept Google’s reasoning for why it is?

VIVEK WADHWA: Yes, Google is absolutely correct. What Laszlo said is absolutely correct. And what Telle said, I agree with as well.

You see, what happens here is that young girls look at the tech industry, they see it being male-dominated. It’s like a boys club, and they feel left out, so they don’t enter it. And when they do enter it, when women get into the workplace, they feel discriminated against. They get discouraged. They drop out.

So, this is what leads to the problem. And this is why it’s important for companies like Google to be at the forefront of change, and encouraging women to join them, and then making it women-friendly, making it — and also another important thing, that, in Palo Alto, we have — in the center of Silicon Valley, you have Palo Alto High School, but then you have East Palo Alto High School, where you have African-American and Latino kids.

Those children want to be part of the ecosystem over here. What Google and other tech companies need to do is to start recruiting there, start going and teaching classes there, bringing them into the fold, giving them internships, and making them part of the system.

That could cause dramatic change within five years if they started focusing on it today.

GWEN IFILL: That’s what can happen in the future, but let me just focus for a moment on what is happening now.

Is it acceptable — I’m sticking with you, Mr. Wadhwa — is it acceptable that we hire people who look like us and therefore we get more people who look like us, and that is the reason behind this problem growing and growing?

VIVEK WADHWA: It’s not acceptable.

I have been very vocal about it. And, like I said, the fact that Google is breaking ranks with other tech companies, it’s a — this is a really, really significant announcement that they made, that it took a lot of courage for Laszlo and his team to say, OK, we’re going to now disclose these data, and we’re going to stand up and say that we have done wrong in the past and we want to fix the problem.

I — literally, they have done an amazing thing over here, because it will shake up Silicon Valley like nothing else will.

GWEN IFILL: Laszlo Bock, let me ask you. Some people are watching this and saying, so what? So, what difference does it make if you have a diverse work force, as long as they are turning out the products we want?

What difference does it make?

LASZLO BOCK: Well, it makes a huge difference.

What we have seen internally is teams that are diverse, not just in skin color and gender, but in terms of sexual orientation, in any kind of way you want to look at it, in terms of belief system, they come up with better ideas. They do more interesting things.

There’s interesting research out of MIT that actually looked at the relationship between productivity of teams that are homogeneous and ones where you mix in women. And what they found was that, as you increase the proportion of diversity, teams get more and more and more productive.

GWEN IFILL: So there is a business incentive for diversifying?

LASZLO BOCK: Their — that’s what their research has found.

From the Google perspective, we believe it’s true, and we believe it’s the right thing to do, because, at the end of the day, there are seven billion potential users on the planet of our product, and we’re going develop the best product if they actually have some input into what we are building and we understand where they are coming from.

We haven’t quantified the exact output, but the research from MIT is pretty interesting and compelling.

GWEN IFILL: Well, thank you for bringing this story to us.

Laszlo Bock, Google’s vice president of people operations — love that title — and Telle Whitney of Anita Borg Institute, and Vivek Wadhwa of Stanford University, thank you all.

VIVEK WADHWA: Thank you.

LASZLO BOCK: Thank you.

TELLE WHITNEY: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: We have more online. See how Google’s numbers compare to those of other tech companies and read commentary from both Telle Whitney and Vivek Wadhwa on how Silicon Valley can hire and retain a diverse work force.