Google 'Courageous' For Admitting Diversity Problem, So What Now?

Tech giant Google recently owned up to a lack of gender and ethnic diversity amongst its staff. Host Michel Martin is joined by two members of the industry to discuss what it means for the tech world.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We want to turn to a topic we've discussed quite a bit over the past few months - diversity in the tech industry. Just recently, one of the biggest names in tech, Google, has started talking openly for the first time about diversity.

Last week Google published a report breaking down its workforce based on gender and ethnicity. The report shows that 30 percent of Google's U.S. workforce is female, 70 percent is male. As far as race goes, 2 percent of the workforce is black, 3 percent is Hispanic, 31 percent is Asian and 61 percent is white. And those numbers, as you might imagine, don't come close to reflecting U.S. demographics.

We wanted to talk more about this with two people who've thought a lot about this issue and who've joined us before. Hadi Partovi is the founder of the nonprofit code.org. Beginning this fall, the organization will partner with public school districts around the country to provide computer science instruction to more than 2 million students. Hadi, welcome back to the program. Thanks for joining us once again.

HADI PARTOVI: Thank you so much for having me here.

MARTIN: And Kalimah Priforce is also back with us. He is the cofounder of Qeyno Labs, which launched the first Hackathon focused on black male achievement in Oakland. Kalimah, welcome back to you as well.

KALIMAH PRIFORCE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And before we go any further, I do want to mention that we did contact Google to ask them if they'd like to join our conversation. They declined to speak with us. But instead, they sent us this statement from Google senior vice president of People Operations, Laszlo Bock, quote, "we are not where we want to be when it comes to diversity. It is hard to address these kinds of challenges if you are not prepared to discuss them openly and with the facts. All our diversity efforts, including going public with these numbers, are designed to ensure Google recruits and retains many more women and minorities in the future," end quote.

So, Kalimah, I'm going to start with you. It's interesting because we have talked before about the unwillingness of tech players to even discuss these issues. So do you applaud Google for coming open with it - getting open with it?

PRIFORCE: What Google shared was courageous and showed leadership. Not a lot of tech companies are doing this or showing their numbers. The problem I have is the language that they used in their blog correlating their lack of diversity by using stats about women and minorities in the computer science degrees. It's a deficit approach rather than an asset-based conversation - very 20th century talk for a 21st century company.

MARTIN: What do you mean by that? It's deficit-oriented as opposed to - what would you have preferred that they had said? Would you had prefer that they would've talked about the benefits of diversity?

PRIFORCE: Yeah, talk about the benefits of diversity or even talk about inclusion -that Google is working on and continuously improving their work environment to make sure that women and minorities feel like Google is a great place to be at and as well as that the tech industry - that we're doing things to change some of the pipelines that exist in the tech industry that sometimes don't encourage women and minorities to even want to become players.

MARTIN: Hadi, what about that? What Kalimah is talking about, I think, is the passage in their blog where the spokesman talks about their struggle to recruit and retain women and minorities. He talks about, for example, women earn roughly 18 percent of all computer science degrees. In the United States, blacks and Hispanics makes up under 10 percent of U.S. college grads and collect fewer than 5 percent of degrees in CS majors, respectively. And so that's, I think, what Kalimah is talking about. How does that strike you?

PARTOVI: Yeah, well, I mean, at code.org, we're completely focused on the education pipeline that leads to people pursuing computer science. And, you know, if you look at the stats, the percentage of women at Google is actually higher than the overall percentage of women in software jobs in general. The industry at a whole, software jobs are 23 percent women, and that itself is, again, higher than the percentage at the school level. At the high school or college level, it's 15 to 18 percent. So it's quite difficult if you're trying to hire people who've studied computer science when the actual field isn't producing an evenly balanced representation of the genders.

MARTIN: I understand you're working on addressing that pipeline issue, Hadi, but what are your thoughts about the way Google framed this? I mean, obviously, we would've loved to talk to them to understand what it is about now, especially since they have been execrated for refusing to talk about these issues, and they say that they were wrong. So the way that they framed this, do you - Hadi, do you agree with it, disagree with it? Do you find this helpful?

PARTOVI: I don't mince words on the wording of the blog as much as I think it's great and courageous to actually publish the stats - I think is a good thing because you can't solve a problem unless you start discussing it.

MARTIN: Kalimah, talk a little bit more about your sense of why there needs to be a more positive focus when describing the benefits of inclusion. Can you give us an example about that?

PRIFORCE: See, I'd have to disagree. Language is really important. It determines whether or not - like, for example, some of the comments that I read on the blog from Google employees that the - same thing. They said, oh, well, we have this many women who have degrees, and yet Google has 30 percent. And so we're doing fine, and everything is great - rather than being able to look at it and go, OK, you know what? Maybe the system has to change, the game has to change. And that doesn't mean, oh, well, we need more players. It actually means that we need to be able to change some of the rules that govern and the culture that govern technology.

MARTIN: Well, you were telling us, Kalimah, about something earlier. I think in of one of our earlier conversations. It was a conversation around Google maps avoiding certain areas that are called, quote, "bad neighborhoods." And you were saying if there had perhaps been more diversity on the team that was discussing that, there might've been a different approach. Can you talk a little bit about that?

PRIFORCE: Well, last year Google was introducing features about how to sort of avoid certain areas like - for example, when you're walking, you don't want to take a highway in order to get to your destination. But what it did is also opened up a conversation about avoiding the hood. A ghetto tracker was an app that came out. And it was all these conversations in Silicon Valley about that.

And of course, you know, if you have more minorities and women, you know, sort of at the table and discussing it, they'll go, well, wait a minute. So then should there be sort of pins on maps that show where there's been police brutality in my neighborhood or where there have been rapes in my neighborhood? And so I think that that's something that Google is poised to be able to use data to be used to create inclusive technology

MARTIN: Well, Hadi, final thought from you? I'm particularly interested in whether you think that this will have an effect on - I understand we have a little bit of a disagreement about how - the way this is being framed and so, you know, I appreciate that. But do you feel that their willingness to come forward, however they've chosen to do it, will have an impact on the rest of the industry?

PARTOVI: Yes, for sure. I think, I mean - I think the industry at large is not as diverse as it would like to be, and there's diversity problem, pretty much, in any tech company, whether it's on the gender or ethnicity. And I think it's a helpful thing to sort of shed a light on that so people can collectively think about how to solve the problem.

MARTIN: Do you really - I mean, - can I parse your words a little bit - that they would like to be? Do we really think that? I mean, aren't they powerful players in this marketplace, and if they'd want to be, you know, why aren't they, right?

PARTOVI: That, I think, is not as easy - it's not, you know - it is not easy if you're trying to hire a thousand software engineers and the graduating classes have 15 or 16 percent female. It's hard to make the numbers on who you want to hire. So some of the challenges, I'm sure, are around discrimination of the hiring side of things. Some of the challenges for sure are on terms of retention. It's harder to retain somebody who feels excluded. But the hardest challenge, I believe, is the one that I am trying to solve, which is the pipeline in the first place, making sure that graduating out of college, there's a 50-50 balance between men and women, which would then provide a far greater wave of improving in these numbers.

MARTIN: All right, keep us posted, will you? Hadi Partovi is the founder of the nonprofit code.org. Beginning this fall, the organization will partner with public-school districts around the country to provide computer instructions to more than two million students - with us, from member station KUOW in Seattle. Kalimah Priforce is cofounder of Qeyno Labs, and he launched the first Hackathon focused on black male achievement in Oakland. He was with us from San Francisco. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

PRIFORCE: Thank you.

PARTOVI: Thank you.

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