Alphabet Inc., the company behind internet giants such as Google and YouTube, has faced a growing number of diversity-related controversies in the first few weeks of 2021.
Despite its incredible ongoing profitability — including a 23% increase in advertising and profits of $46 billion in the final quarter of 2020 alone — the company has recently been hit with claims of pay discrimination and diversity staffing issues.
On Tuesday, Feb. 9, HR Dive reported that “Google has agreed to pay $3.8 million to 5,500 employees and applicants to settle charges of pay discrimination at California and Washington state locations.”
The settlement is the result of a routine compliance evaluation by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP). During the evaluation, the OFCCP identified a number of pay disparities specifically impacting female employees in software engineering positions.“
“It also detected hiring rate differences that disadvantaged female and Asian applicants for software engineering positions at several of Google’s California and Washington locations,” reported HR Dive’s Lisa Burden.
“In addition to back pay and interest, the company also agreed to set aside $1.25 million in pay-equity adjustments over the next five years for U.S. employees in engineering positions,” Burden said. “Google also agreed to enhance future compliance; review its current policies, procedures and practices related to hiring and compensation; and conduct analyses and take corrective action to ensure non-discrimination.”
“Pay discrimination remains a systemic problem,” OFCCP’s programs director Jenny Yang said in a statement following the announcement of the settlement. “Employers must conduct regular pay equity audits to ensure that their compensation systems promote equal opportunity.”
In an unrelated incident, Jeffrey Dastin and Paresh Dave from Reuters reported on Feb. 3 that two high profile employees — engineering director David Baker and software engineer Vinesh Kannan — recently left the company after ongoing struggles over diversity and ethics within the tech conglomerate.
Both employees cited the dismissal of AI researcher Timnit Gebru as their reason for leaving the company. Although complete details of Gebru leaving Google are not fully clear, Wired reported that the prominent ethics researcher was fired for refusing to take her name off of a research paper, which suggested that speech technology currently in development at companies like Google may be unethical. In an email to company researchers, Google’s head of research, Jeff Dean, claimed Gebru’s paper didn’t meet the company’s standards for publication, but according to Dastin and Dave, “the disputed paper was perceived as too negative by Google managers.” In December 2020, Dave and Dastin also reported on an internal memo Google sent about the company’s new review procedure with stakeholders, asking researchers to “refrain from casting its [AI] technology in a negative light.”
Baker, who left Google after 16 years of employment with the company, is reported to have said that Gebru’s exit “extinguished my desire to continue as a Googler. We cannot say we believe in diversity, and then ignore the conspicuous absence of many voices from within our walls.”
In a tweet discussing his departure from Alphabet, Kannan wrote: “Yesterday was my last day at Google. I left because Google’s mistreatment of [Timnit Gebru] and [April Christina Curley] crossed a personal red line I wrote down when I started the job. I know I gained a lot from Google, but I also gained a lot from both of their work, and they were wronged.”
Like Gebru, April Christina Curley was a former diversity recruiter at the company who identifies as a Black queer woman. Following her firing from the company in September 2020, Curley detailed her time at Google by saying, via Twitter: “Because of my adamant advocacy of Black and brown students to be fairly and justly considered for roles at Google, I experienced active abuse and retaliation from several managers who harassed me — and many other black women.”
She added: “Despite STELLAR performance metrics which can be supported by multiple data points, I was repeatedly denied promotions, had my compensation cut, placed on performance improvement plans, denied leadership opportunities, yelled at, intentionally excluded from meetings, etc.”
Although Google declined to comment for Dastin and Dave’s story in Reuters, the two said the company “pointed to previous statements that it is looking to restore employees’ trust after Gebru’s departure and that it disputes Curley’s accusation.”
In an op-ed titled “We Built Google. This Is Not the Company We Want to Work For.” that was published in The New York Times on Jan. 4, Parul Koul and Chewy Shaw — the executive chair and the vice-chair of the newly formed Alphabet Workers Union — explained that it was actions like these that had led hundreds of the company’s workers to band together and form a union to protect employee rights.
The op-ed detailed a walkout of more than 20,000 Google employees following a multimillion settlement to two executives who had been accused of sexual misconduct toward our co-workers; stories of “harassment and discrimination at the company” and other questionable actions where Google “developed artificial intelligence technology for use by the Department of Defense and profited from ads by a hate group.”
In explaining how they and the workers they now represent plan to move forward, Koul and Shaw wrote: “Our union will work to ensure that workers know what they’re working on, and can do their work at a fair wage, without fear of abuse, retaliation or discrimination. When Google went public in 2004, it said it would be a company that ‘does good things for the world even if we forgo some short-term gains.’ Its motto used to be ‘Don’t be evil.’”
The letter ended with: “We will live by that motto. Alphabet is a powerful company, responsible for vast swaths of the internet. It is used by billions of people across the world. It has a responsibility to prioritize the public good. It has a responsibility to its thousands of workers and billions of users to make the world a better place. As Alphabet workers, we can help build that world.”
While the company’s employees appear to be onboard, many say it’s still too early to determine if that newfound commitment can carry over to Alphabet’s leaders as well.