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Google employees set the tone on diversity, more than management does

The search giant's "incremental progress" still passes as a win in Silicon Valley.

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Thousands of Google employees walked out of offices worldwide last year to protest issues related to sexual assault, diversity and rights of contractors. 

James Martin/CNET

Google released its latest diversity figures this week, and there's good news and bad news.

The good news is the search giant made progress. In 2018, women constituted 32.2% of new hires, up a bit from 31.3% the year before. The company also hired more black and Latino workers, though the gains were less dramatic. Black hires were up to 4.8% from 4.1%, and Latino hires were up to 6.8% from 6.3%.

The bad news: That marginal improvement passes as progress in Silicon Valley, where the workforce is overwhelmingly white or Asian, and male. At Google, almost half of new hires are white, and 43.9% are Asian.

"Even incremental progress in hiring, progression and retention is hard-won," Danielle Brown, vice president of employee engagement, and Melonie Parker, global director of diversity, equity and inclusion, said in the report. "Only a holistic approach to these issues will produce meaningful, sustainable change."

A Google spokeswoman said in a statement that black and Latino representation had the "greatest gains we have seen since we began reporting," and results in hiring women were "meaningful."

Still, here's what may be most discouraging: Some Google employees have told me they believe the workforce is more in tune with social issues, such as inequality, than the company's management is. On Monday, more than 2,000 Googlers signed a petition to remove a member of the company's newly formed council on artificial intelligence ethics for alleged anti-trans and anti-immigrant views. A day later, 900 Google workers reportedly signed a different letter demanding better treatment of Google's extended workforce, commonly known at the company as TVCs -- temps, vendors and contractors. In response, Google said it would require temp companies to provide its workers with full benefits, including health care, a $15 dollar minimum wage and paid parental leave.

Google's workforce, not its management, has made it a hotbed for social protest in the tech industry.

That steady churn of protest builds on work that employee organizers did last year. They protested the company's military contracts and work in China. And organizers really captured the world's attention with a global walkout to protest Google's handling of sexual assault allegations directed at key executives. Roughly 20,000 Googlers walked away from their desks, tweeting as they did and appearing on television news reports in multiple time zones.

The walkout was effective, but the organizers said it also highlighted a key failing in the company's diversity effort. One of the demands of the protest was to elevate Brown, Google's diversity chief. The protestors wanted her to report directly to CEO Sundar Pichai, rather than Eileen Naughton, head of people operations, to demonstrate Google's commitment to diversity. Google didn't capitulate to that demand, though it did give in on some other requests the protestors made.

In the report, Brown and Parker say the company takes diversity seriously.

"We've used this report to show progress towards a more representative workforce, and share both what we've learned along the way and our commitments moving forward," they wrote. "We've also heard from our employees -- loud and clear -- that this work is more important than ever."

Maybe that message will resound in the C-suite as well.