SAN FRANCISCO – On a weekday morning in September, Leslie Miley, an engineering manager with decades of experience in the tech industry, joined his colleagues streaming into Google’s San Francisco offices. He was wearing the kind of outfit typical of engineers – T-shirt, jeans and Adidas kicks. His employee badge was plainly visible, clipped to his belt.
That’s when Miley says a fellow Google employee raced in front of him and physically stopped him demanding to see Miley’s badge. “Welcome to being Black in Big Tech,” he tweeted.
It wasn’t the first time that a colleague had body blocked Miley when he was trying to go to work. He says these incidents, which he refers to as “bias in badging,” send an insidious message to people of color that “you don’t belong here” in an industry mostly staffed by white people and men.
“It is the physical manifestation of so many people of color’s experience in tech,” Miley told USA TODAY in an interview. “We still can’t get in the door – literally.” Google declined to comment.
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Tech’s race problem – why Silicon Valley is so white – was thrust into the national conversation in 2014 when companies from Google to Facebook to Apple disclosed for the first time how few women and people of color they employ. The companies pledged to make their workforce less homogeneous.
The paucity of underrepresented minorities in an industry increasingly dominating the U.S. economy drew sharp scrutiny from company shareholders and Washington lawmakers. Yet hundreds of millions, if not billions, in diversity spending later, very little has changed.
In 2012 at Google, African Americans accounted for little more than 1.5% of U.S. employees. All 364 of them could have fit comfortably in one jetliner. The most recent figures available for Google parent company Alphabet show that, in 2018, the company employed 1,793 black people, 2.6% of its U.S. workforce. Translation: As its employee base grew more than threefold to 67,248, Alphabet’s ranks grew by fewer than 1,500 black people.
Lack of diversity is a widespread problem
The problem is not isolated to Google. Analyses by USA TODAY and others show major tech companies employ far fewer women and underrepresented minorities than other industries, even in Silicon Valley, overlooking a wealth of available talent.
And it’s not just in technical roles. Minorities at Google and other major tech companies are also sharply underrepresented in non-technical jobs such as sales and administration, with African Americans faring noticeably worse than Hispanics, a USA TODAY analysis in 2014 revealed. According to the most recent U.S. government data released in 2016, African-Americans make up 3% of employees in the top 75 tech firms in Silicon Valley, while they hold 24% of the jobs in non-tech firms.
The sharpest deficit: African-American women, who are represented at much higher rates across other industries consistent with their proportion of the overall U.S. workforce. Today 741 black women work at Google. That’s 1% of its U.S. workforce.
Google says it’s trying. In 2018, the company reported attrition data for the first time, showing black and Hispanic employees left at higher rates than whites. Google tackled the problem with a number of initiatives including hiring retention case managers to work with employees from underrepresented backgrounds. This year, Google says the attrition rates fell for those groups though it has a long ways to go in achieving parity in its workforce.
Complicating those efforts, the current political climate has created a tense atmosphere inside major tech companies like Google where some employees are in open revolt over Silicon Valley’s efforts to close the racial gap.
In 2017, Google engineer James Damore, was fired after the leaking of his internal memo suggesting gender differences could explain why most of Google’s engineers and leaders are men. The following year he sued his former employer, claiming that Google is biased against white men with conservative views.
First-hand accounts of racial bias
An outpouring of first-hand accounts of racial discrimination and bias on blogs and social media and in lawsuits paint a different picture. People from non-majority culture groups say they are often labeled “diversity hires” and are treated unfairly in everything from pay to promotions.
A 2017 study from the Kapor Center for Social Impact and Harris Poll found that such toxic workplaces – where harassment, stereotyping and bullying occur – are driving away women and people of color. Not only does the exodus undercut tech companies’ efforts to boost diversity, it’s costing an estimated $16 billion a year.
Take Facebook. In November, a dozen anonymous current and former Facebook employees said they, too, are treated as if they “do not belong.” Their Medium post, entitled “Facebook Empowers Racism Against Its Employees of Color,” portrayed Facebook as a culture rife with racist and discriminatory behavior against African Americans and Hispanics and came one year after a former Facebook manager, Mark Luckie, accused the social media company of having a “black people problem.”
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“While eating breakfast, two white employees asked me to clean up after their mess. I am a program manager,” one account read. “I told my manager about the incident. She told me I need to dress more professionally.” Another individual claimed that they approached human resources about discrimination happening on their team, but were told “there is no bias at Facebook.”
The Medium post also contained screenshots from an app called Blind, which allows employees to anonymously post about their workplaces. One comment claimed blacks are less intelligent than other races. One poll showed that a majority of respondents — 43 people — believed that black people “just like to complain” about their treatment.
“These people make it seem like they work for the KKK,” one staff member wrote of Luckie’s Facebook post. “They should feel privileged that they were diversity hires and got into the company after we lowered our hiring standards.”
‘We’re listening and working hard to do better’
Facebook responded with a statement from Bertie Thomson, vice president of corporate communications. “No one at Facebook, or anywhere, should have to put up with this behavior. We are sorry,” she said. “It goes against everything that we stand for as a company. We’re listening and working hard to do better.”
After publishing the Medium post, the same anonymous Facebook employees issued an update. They reported that company leaders and some managers had expressed dismay and regret. At an all-hands meeting, Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said the behavior described in the Medium post did not belong in the kind of company he wants to build. Dozens of employees of color stepped forward to share their experiences. One manager reached out to a former employee and said: “I am sorry we failed you.”
Not all of the reaction was supportive. Several managers banded together to try to unmask the authors of the Medium post. One manager lashed out at her direct report who had shared experiences in it. On Blind, Facebook employees posted racist memes and debated whether any of the behaviors cited were in fact racist. In an emailed statement, Facebook said: “We welcome feedback and each conversation helps us do better.”
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None of this comes as any surprise to Miley, who rose to prominence as a critic of the tech industry’s failed efforts to reverse decades of exclusion. His public takedown of Twitter’s track record on diversity in 2015, when he was the sole African-American engineer in a leadership position there, struck a nerve and he’s been pushing the tech industry to do better ever since.
Years later, his frustration with the status quo is palpable. “We are all telling you that the call is coming from inside the house,” he says.
And yet, even in highly publicized incidents, there appears to be little if any follow through or accountability. Miley says tech companies can continue to invest in all sorts of programs and recruitment efforts, but until they face up to how alienating their corporate cultures are to people of color, they won’t make any meaningful progress.
Miley recalls an example: After building one diverse engineering team, he interviewed inside Google for the opportunity to run another. At the time, Miley was overseeing a group of 200 engineers, product managers, tech writers and program managers and responsible for all of Google Cloud’s documentation and website infrastructure and he had developed a reputation for his work in inclusion and equity.
In the interview, Miley was asked by a senior engineering director if he would refuse to hire a white male computer science student from Stanford if the team were not diverse enough. The question made Miley so uncomfortable that he removed himself from the interview process and reported the conversation to senior leadership.
“The sad reality is that there are people in your organization who believe that any and all of these programs are just set asides, that they are just quotas, and they will resist them as much as they can. And they will resist them by posting on anonymous apps or they will resist them by undermining people,” Miley says.
“Because if you can undermine me, if you can make me fail, if you can reduce our ability to get promoted and reduce our ability to get ahead, you prove that we didn’t belong in the first place.”