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At shareholder meeting, Google's diversity issues take center stage

At parent company Alphabet's annual meeting, even Google employees step up to publicly challenge their bosses.

Google and Alphabet headquarters in Mountain View, California.

Google and Alphabet headquarters in Mountain View, California.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

For the past year, culture and diversity clashes within Google and its parent company, Alphabet, have dominated headlines.

Last summer, a now-infamous memo by fired engineer James Damore roiled the company, highlighting issues of gender and race. And Alphabet, like many other tech giants, has been criticized for not having enough diversity on its board. (Of the 11 members, only two are women.)

On Wednesday, those issues were in full view again at Alphabet's annual meeting with shareholders at its headquarters in Mountain View, California.

"I can confirm that for every new Alphabet board opening, we will consider a set of candidates that includes both underrepresented people of color and different genders," said John Hennessy, chairman of the board.

The company has actively been looking to fill two independent director roles. One member, Shirley Tilghman, retired in February, and Paul Otellini, the former Intel CEO, died last year.  

Even Google employees themselves stepped up on Wednesday to challenge management on diversity issues -- a rarity for a company's rank and file in such a public and formal corporate setting.

One proposal was presented by Irene Knapp, a Google engineer. She teamed up with Zevin Asset Management, which submitted the measure, to try to push Alphabet to tie executive pay to improving diversity metrics.

"The lack of clear communicated policies and actions to advance diversity and inclusion with concrete accountability and leadership from senior executives has left many of us feeling unsafe and unable to do our work," Knapp said.

The proposal, like every other shareholder proposal presented Wednesday, was eventually shot down.

Google has been embroiled in clashes that have to do with race, gender and diversity. Last August, it got national attention for the 3,000-word Damore memo, which argued that the gender gap in the tech industry in part exists not because of sexism, but because of "biological" differences between men and women. CEO Sundar Pichai eventually fired Damore, prompting criticism from conservatives.

Google has also been the target of a Department of Labor investigation looking into the company for gender pay discrimination. Right now Google's workforce is 69 percent male and 56 percent white.

Google has faced other cultural controversies recently, too. Employees have challenged the company's decision to take part in Project Maven, a Defense Department initiative aimed at developing better artificial intelligence for the US military. Googlers were divided over their employer's role in helping develop technology that could be used in warfare. More than 4,000 employees reportedly signed a petition addressed to Pichai demanding the company cancel the project. Last week Google said it wouldn't renew the Maven contract or pursue similar contracts.

All the while, Google and YouTube (owned by Google) have been under scrutiny from lawmakers for their role in the 2016 US election and the spread of misinformation on the platforms. The companies -- along with Facebook and Twitter -- have been blamed for not doing enough to prevent Russian meddling during the presidential campaign.

Google didn't specifically address those controversies on Wednesday, but Pichai mentioned the company's responsibility in getting those kinds of things right.

"Technology can be a tremendously positive force," he said. "But it also raises important questions about how we should apply it in the world. We are asking ourselves all those questions."

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