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Google ouster of top AI researcher Timnit Gebru draws sharp new scrutiny of how it treats Black employees

 CEO Sundar Pichai to apologize to employees and promise an investigation.

Google’s dismissal of a top artificial intelligence researcher vocal about the company’s failures to address the lack of diversity in its workforce has drawn sharp new scrutiny of its treatment of Black employees, particularly women.



Timnit Gebru says she was fired via email after refusing to retract a research paper that asked tough questions about a type of artificial intelligence, including Google’s use of it.


Jeff Dean, Google’s executive in charge of AI, told employees in an email that Gebru’s paper did not follow the rules for work published externally. 


Some 2,000 Google employees signed a petition protesting the company’s handling of the situation. Academic researchers called out Google on social media in a rare and widespread rebuke.


The public outcry led the internet giant’s CEO Sundar Pichai to apologize to employees and promise an investigation. He did not apologize to Gebru.



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“We need to accept responsibility for the fact that a prominent Black, female leader with immense talent left Google unhappily,” Pichai wrote in an email on Wednesday. “This loss has had a ripple effect through some of our least represented communities, who saw themselves and some of their experiences reflected in Dr. Gebru’s. It was also keenly felt because Dr. Gebru is an expert in an important area of AI Ethics that we must continue to make progress on – progress that depends on our ability to ask ourselves challenging questions.”



Gebru, who joined the company last year from Stanford University and studies the long-term implications of artificial intelligence which can perpetuate racism, sexism and other biases, responded on Twitter. Her hiring helped improve Google's reputation as a company that recruits top Black researchers and questions potentially harmful uses of AI technology.


“Don’t paint me as an ‘angry Black woman’ for whom you need ‘de-escalation strategies,’” she wrote. “This statement implies that I was out of line and that their failure was NOT discriminating OR retaliating against me, NOR having me face a hostile work environment.”


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Safiya Noble, an associate professor at UCLA and co-founder and co-director of the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, says Gebru was fired for "trying to flag discriminatory technologies that underlie Google’s products."



"It’s even more egregious that there was no acknowledgement by Google of the toxic workplace environment that women and people of color experience there – from elite workers to low-paid contractors and suppliers,” said Noble, author of "Algorithms of Oppression."


Google’s dismissal of a prominent artificial intelligence researcher vocal about the company’s failure to address the company's lack of diversity has drawn sharp new scrutiny of its treatment of Black employees, particularly women.

“We need to remember that Big Tech has a long track record of silencing its critics, especially when they come from their own global workforce,” she said.


Google declined to comment.


Gebru on being Black and working at Google

Details of her employment that Gebru shared on social media echoed the experiences of other high-profile Black employees who say racial bias drove them from the company, which touts its commitment to anti-racism and the Black Lives Matter movement.


Gebru says managers and colleagues regularly policed her tone and made excuses for racist behavior. Her criticism of Google’s progress in improving conditions for employees of color were ignored, she says.


“What happened with this paper and email is just the tip of the iceberg,” she said on Twitter.


Google positioned itself as an industry leader in driving more diversity in 2014 when it openly acknowledged tech’s race problem for the first time. After years of resistance, the company disclosed how few women and people of color it employed and pledged to make its workforce less homogeneous and its corporate culture more equitable and inclusive.



Since 2018, Google has said it would make increasing the number of Black and Hispanic women, the company’s least-represented demographic, an “intentional focus.” 


Yet, despite growing pressure from employees, repeated pledges to make its workforce reflect the billions of people it serves around the globe and hundreds of millions in diversity spending, the needle has not budged. 


Black women least represented at Google

As of 2018, 741 Black women worked at Google, 1% of its U.S. workforce, according to a USA TODAY analysis of the most recently available data. 


Five Black women – 1.4% – held senior leadership positions out of 357 and 741 Black women – 1.1% – held management positions out of 67,248.


In 2012 at Google, African Americans accounted for little more than 1.5% of U.S. employees. All 364 of them could have fit in one jetliner. 


The most recent figures available for Google parent company Alphabet show that, in 2018, the company employed 1,793 Black people or 2.6% of its U.S. workforce. 


That lack of representation is not isolated to Google. That an industry increasingly dominating the U.S. economy has so little racial or ethnic diversity has drawn criticism from company shareholders and Washington lawmakers. 


Analyses by USA TODAY and others show major tech companies employ far fewer women and people from underrepresented groups than other industries, even in Silicon Valley, overlooking a wealth of available talent.



And it's not just in technical roles. They are also sharply underrepresented at Google and other major tech companies in non-technical jobs such as sales and administration, with African Americans faring 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.


First-hand accounts of racial discrimination

First-hand accounts of racial discrimination at Google and other tech companies have gone viral on blogs and social media and in lawsuits. People from non-majority 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 at a cost of an estimated $16 billion a year.


Leslie Miley, an engineering manager with decades of experience in the tech industry, threw his support behind Gebru on Twitter. 


He says he, too, left Google over “the lack of progress on taking the experiences" of employees of color seriously "and fixing processes/behavior that were damaging to me and the community I care about."


"It still seems to be the case and extracts a heavy toll on all,” he wrote.


ource:https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2020/12/11/google-timnit-gebru-black-employees-diversity-sundar-pichai/3889402001/

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