Exposing Hidden Bias at Google
Google, like many tech companies, is a man’s world.
Men make up 83 percent of Google’s engineering employees and 79 percent of its managers. In a report to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last year, Google said that of its 36 executives and top-ranking managers, just three are women.
Google’s leaders say they are unhappy about the firm’s poor gender diversity, and about the severe underrepresentation of blacks and Hispanics among its work force.
And so they are undertaking a long-term effort to improve these numbers, the centerpiece of which is a series of workshops aimed at making Google’s culture more accepting of diversity.
There’s just one problem: The company has no solid evidence that the workshops, or many of its other efforts to improve diversity, are actually working.
In some ways Google’s plan to fix its diversity issues resembles many of its most ambitious product ideas, from self-driving cars to wiring the country for superfast Internet.
As in those efforts, it has set a high goal in this case: to fight deep-set cultural biases and an insidious frat-house attitude that pervades the tech business. Tech luminaries make sexist comments so often that it has ceased to be news when they do.
Google is attacking the problem with its considerable resources and creativity. But it does not have a timeline for when the company’s work force might become representative of the population, or whether it will ever get there.
“I think it’s terrific that they’re doing this,” said Freada Kapor Klein, an entrepreneur who has long studied workplace diversity, and who is the co-chairwoman of the Kapor Center for Social Impact. “But it’s going to be important that Google not just give a lecture about the science, but that there be active strategies on how to mitigate bias. A one-shot intervention against a lifetime of biased messages is unlikely to be successful.”
Google says its plan isn’t one-shot. It points out that it has been trying to improve its diversity for years by sponsoring programs to increase the number of women and minorities who go into tech, and meticulously studying the way it hires people in an effort to reduce bias.
In May after pressure from civil rights leaders, the company published a report documenting the sex and race of its employees “to be candid about the issues,” Laszlo Bock, Google’s executive in charge of human resources, wrote at the time.
Google’s diversity training workshops, which began last year and which more than half of Google’s nearly 49,000 employees have attended, are based on an emerging field of research in social psychology known as unconscious bias. These are the hidden, reflexive preferences that shape most people’s worldviews, and that can profoundly affect how welcoming and open a workplace is to different people and ideas.
Google’s interest in hidden biases was sparked in 2012, when Mr. Bock read an article in The New York Times about a study that showed systematic discrimination against female applicants for scientific jobs in academia. The effect was so pervasive that researchers theorized the discrimination must be governed by unconscious cultural biases rather than overt sexism.
Mr. Bock wondered how such unconscious biases were playing out at Google. “This is a pretty genteel environment, and you don’t usually see outright manifestations of bias,” he said. “Occasionally you’ll have some idiot do something stupid and hurtful, and I like to fire those people.”
But Mr. Bock suspected that the more pernicious bias was most likely pervasive and hidden, a deep-set part of the culture rather than the work of a few loudmouth sexists.
Improving diversity wasn’t just a feel-good goal for Google. Citing research that shows diverse teams can be more creative than homogeneous ones, Mr. Bock argued that a diverse work force could be good for Google’s business. Could Google investigate how biases were affecting people’s work — and, more important, could it change its own culture?