The Google Anti-Diversity Screed

4 min read

Last night, a screed written by a Google employee that questions the value and legitimacy of diversity work was made public. It had already been shared widely throughout Google. The Google anti-diversity screed is not remarkable for its originality or its style. It rehashes misinformation that would feel right at home in an MRA discussion board with the stylistic flourish of a 10th grader with a good vocabulary.

However, this piece didn't come from a high school sophomore or an MRA discussion: it came from within Google. Given Google's role in how we find information, which in turn shapes reputation and, in some cases, business competition, opinions held within Google can scale. Google also collects and stores huge amounts of information about most of us on the internet through their advertising and tracking business. Given the amount of information they collect, and the opacity with which they use it, the opinions of people within Google matter.

Google has had issues with clear bias in their algorithms. What does it mean that when I go to Google and search for a baby (and I searched as an anonymous user, logged in via a VPN, and both with and without Tor) I am shown results that are almost exclusively of white children?

vpn search of babies

vpn only

vpn with tor

vpn with Tor

When people within Google speak about diversity, what they say matters. While Google is an enormous company, and we have no idea where the author works within this larger structure, we also don't know how widely these ideas are shared within the organization. It's also worth remembering the effect of the heckler's veto, where a small minority can squelch progress.

Ideas don't spring fully formed from a vacuum. When ideas make it into the light of day -- especially in the form of a multi-page screed -- it's a sign that the author has been thinking them over for a while, sharing them with peers, and/or creating drafts. All of these things take time. Now is also a good time to note that if these ideas were shared among peers before making it into written form, they were likely given a warm initial reception.

It's also worth noting that the piece does not represent Google's corporate policy. However, the piece does provide some interesting context for Google's ongoing failures to improve the diversity of its workforce. The most enlightened corporate policy in the world will fail without the support of the workforce. Given that the perspectives described in the Google anti-diversity screed also read like a laundry list of the bias that women in tech continue to face, it begs the question of how deeply Google's corporate policy has been embraced throughout the organization.

I'd also be curious about how educators who rely on Google's services are reacting to this news. Up to this point, I haven't heard anything, but given Google's increasingly large role in shaping what happens in the classroom, it would be great to hear educator perspectives on this. This also brings to mind the challenge faced by educators when their colleagues voice opinions about kids and families that demonstrate bias. 

Silence isn't an option, and the answers aren't easy, but we can start to have a better conversation when we call out that disagreeing with people who espouse gender bias or racial bias is necessary. We aren't "silencing" people when we disagree with hateful and misinformed opinions. We're talking; ironically, many of our free speech advocates have a hard time with that.

Update, August 7: Based on reporting at Motherboard, there is at least some support within Google for the author of the anti-diversity piece.

This piece, written by ex-Google employee Yonatan Zunger, provides some excellent insight from an insider's perspective.