In 2014, Google began a very public campaign to increase the diversity of its workforce. It released its first diversity report—a groundbreaking gesture of transparency for big tech at the time—showing that less than 2 percent of its employees were black, and only 30 percent were women.
Company executives swore their commitment to diversity, pledged money to organizations aimed at increasing the number of women and people of color in tech fields, and began partnering with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to create a pipeline for Black talent. In its latest diversity report, Google announced that 2019 had marked “the largest gains in Black+ tech hiring in the U.S.” since it started publishing its numbers.
Google is now 3.7 percent Black—1.6 percent Black women—and during its best year for hiring Black talent, Black workers made up 5.5 percent of the company’s total hires, many of them in non-technical roles.
Last December, Dr. Timnit Gebru, a world-renowned AI ethicist and one of the highest profile and highest ranking Black women at Google, announced the company had fired her for speaking out about racism and censorship of anti-racist research. Her revelation, which Google has barely commented upon, was soon followed by another from April Christina Curley, the recruiter largely responsible for building the company’s relationship with HBCUs, who said she had also been fired for speaking up about racism in the hiring process.
It was a stark, but not surprising, microcosm of what life is like for Black women at Google, according to Black women in tech, computer science educators at HBCUs, and corporate diversity experts: They face daunting barriers to get in, and once there, there’s a ceiling on how high they can rise and a limit on what they can say.
“You put a machete at the beginning of your pipeline, you put a machete at the end of your pipeline, what do you think happens in the middle of the pipeline? You completely shattered it,” Dr. Brandeis Marshall, CEO of DataedX, a company that provides data talent-development training to the tech industry, told Motherboard.
In a Twitter thread disclosing her firing, Curley said that at the time Google hired her, in 2014, the company had never hired an HBCU graduate for a technical position. Educators at several HBCUs confirmed to Motherboard that none of their students had gone on to work at Google prior to Curley starting her outreach. By the time she was fired in September 2020, Curley said, she had overseen the recruitment of more than 300 Black and brown HBCU graduates into engineering roles.
“Any Black university student who got their foot in the door, April is responsible,” Dr. Gloria Washington, a computer science professor at Howard University, told Motherboard. “I couldn’t even imagine getting rid of a person like April because of everything she’s done. Her impact is tremendous. Getting rid of that kind of a person, to me, is stupid. It is going to affect the way the HBCUs look at them.”
Within hours of Curley’s announcement, HBCU 20x20, which claims to be the world’s largest network for HBCU graduates, cancelled its partnership with Google. The organization’s founder, Nicole Tinson, tweeted: “We do not encourage working or interning at Google.”
Gebru and Curley did not respond to requests for interviews.
Google also declined an interview request. Instead, it provided a previously issued statement about Curley, stating that Google has a large team of recruiters working to attract underrepresented talent and that “We don’t agree with the way April describes her termination, but it’s not appropriate for us to provide a commentary about her claims.”
The company has been similarly opaque about its firing of Gebru. In a memo to employees, Google CEO Sundar Pachai wrote that the company needs to “assess the circumstances” that led to her departure and that Google needs to “accept responsibility for the fact that a prominent Black, female leader with immense talent left Google unhappily.”
According to its 2020 diversity report, Black women held just 1.1 percent of leadership positions at Google. White and Asian men held a combined 70 percent of leadership roles.
Google’s public silence about the firings appears intentional, Y-Vonne Hutchinson, CEO of ReadySet, a diversity, equity, and inclusion consulting firm that works with tech companies, told Motherboard. “Given how Google went about firing these women, particularly Timnit, how public it was and how unapologetic it was—Google was sending a message,” she said. “If you complain too loudly about racism, sexual harassment, whatever, we’ll fire you … It’s very hard to rationalize working for a company like that.”
The financial benefits of a Google job, and even more importantly, the power the company’s name on a resume has to open other doors, makes it hard to turn down Google positions. But nearly every Black woman interviewed for this article said they would be hesitant to recommend that a mentee or student apply to Google.
“It all seems great on paper,” Dr. Quincy Brown, senior director for innovation research at AnitaB.org, a nonprofit that promotes women in the tech industry, told Motherboard. “Go into it with your eyes wide open about what it is, what it isn’t. I would look around at who you’ll be working with.”
Marshall said that none of the young Black women she works with have felt comfortable accepting a Google job. “Everyone is like ‘I’ll do an internship, but I don’t even want to apply for a full-time job.’”
The looming question for Google—and the billions of people who use products built by its overwhelmingly white and male staff—is whether the company can repair its reputation among Black tech workers, and Black women in particular.
The newly formed Alphabet Workers Union told Motherboard that it plans to create specific spaces on its steering committee for minority groups, and one of its focuses will be holding Google’s human resources department responsible for how it treats members of those communities. “Black women have no reason to trust the executives of Alphabet [Google’s parent company] because time and time again they have made great promises only to betray the individual black women who honestly speak about their experiences,” Chewy Shaw, executive vice president of the union, told Motherboard. “As a union, our primary goal is to make our company live up to its promises.”
Rhonda Allen, CEO of dev/color, a Silicon Valley nonprofit that seeks to advance Black software engineers, told Motherboard that her organization has to be deliberate about honoring both the positive and negative experiences of its members (many of whom work at tech companies), while also maintaining its partnerships with those companies.
Allen has spoken with partners at several tech companies in recent days, including Google. All of these companies, she said, “must increasingly walk the walk and not view their relationships with Black employees and organizations as transactional.”
“We have to stop to acknowledge the too-often traumatic experiences of many Black people working in technology,” she said. “And companies such as Google must do better to foster inclusive working cultures where Black people thrive. An organization like /dev/color wouldn’t need to exist if the field as a whole were getting it right.”
Others are unconvinced that Google’s leadership has any incentive or desire to change. Hutchinson said it will take regulatory punishments, such as an investigation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission into the firings of Gebru and Curley.
Leslie Miley, a former engineering director at Google, left the company and previously quit from a leadership job at Twitter due to the companies’ treatment of him and other Black employees. He told Motherboard that he believes the only power left resides with individuals who choose to withhold their own labor.
“Black women have historically been treated in this manner and there’s never any blowback. … The companies are acting with impunity. There is no price to pay, because people don’t leave. And the people who don’t leave are the ones with privilege. And they say they’re supporters, but then they don’t act,” Miley said. “I would never tell a person of color who has experienced systemic discrimination to not take Google’s money. However, white people have the privilege and safety net to not take Google’s money.”