Google Episode Sends a Message: Diversity Is a Tough Sell in Silicon Valley

By Georgia Wells and Yoree Koh Features Dow Jones Newswires

Champions of Silicon Valley's efforts to make the technology industry more inclusive of women and minorities are facing an unwelcome reality: not all employees have bought into the diversity push.

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The recent manifesto criticizing Google's initiatives wasn't the first time Danielle Brown, Google's new head of diversity, had encountered opposition.

Previously, when Ms. Brown had the same role at Intel Corp., employees anonymously posted approximately 40 negative comments on an internal company website in response to positive articles about Intel's diversity programs, according to a former Intel employee. Ms. Brown left Intel in June to join Google.

Some of the comments questioned why Intel was devoting $300 million over a number of years to improve diversity, or suggested managers would be forced to hire unqualified workers to satisfy goals, according to the former employee. Other comments said the initiative was just for good public relations.

"This work is hard," Ms. Brown said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal in February about her work at Intel. "Engineers...don't believe we have a problem until we see the data behind it."

One reason for the skepticism is that three years and hundreds of millions of dollars spent on diversity have produced meager results.

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The tech industry continues to be a mostly white or Asian male workforce. Google, part of Alphabet Inc., said in June that 69% of its staff is male, only 1 percentage point less than in 2014, the first year it began reporting its diversity numbers. At Intel, 85% of U.S. employees are either white or Asian, the company said in December, also down just 1 percentage point from three years ago.

Google parent Alphabet has over 75,000 employees and Intel has more than 100,000, making it harder for those companies to move the percentages.

The people with the most to lose may also resist change to how the system works. "Diversity efforts can be a tough sell to some employees -- primarily those from majority groups," said Joelle Emerson, chief executive of Paradigm, a consultancy that advises many Silicon Valley companies on diversity. "It's not uncommon for people to worry about the implications these efforts will have for them."

Intel's new chief diversity and inclusion officer, Barbara Whye, said in a statement that Intel's diversity efforts make it a stronger company. "We remain steadfast in our commitment to our diversity and inclusion efforts," she said.

Through a Google spokesman, Ms. Brown declined to comment for this article.

James Damore, the Google engineer who was fired Monday, said he wrote his memo decrying Google's diversity efforts after attending a diversity program that he disagreed with. It wasn't clear what sort of program Mr. Damore meant. In recent months Google has offered optional unconscious-bias training sessions for its workers.

"I had some discussions with people there but there was a lot of just shaming. 'No, you can't say that. That's sexist. You can't do this,'" Mr. Damore said in an interview with conservative YouTube personality Stefan Molyneux that appeared on Google's video platform this week. "There's just so much hypocrisy in a lot of the things they're saying, so I decided to create the document to clarify my thoughts."

In his memo, Mr. Damore said that he doesn't think "diversity is bad" but argued that Google's approach to fixing it is flawed because of what he called the company's liberal bias. A spokesman for Google declined to comment. Mr. Damore didn't respond to a request for comment.

Proponents of diversity efforts point to academic research showing that a workforce comprised of people of different race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation leads to better performance. A 2012 study conducted by professors at the University of Maryland and Columbia Business School found companies in Standard & Poor's Composite 1500 list with women in top management were valued more highly.

But in a data-driven industry like tech, it can be harder to convince employees of the value of hard-to-measure diversity initiatives, executives say. "We don't have a numerical measure to say that our bias was a 10 and now it's a six," Maxine Williams, head of diversity at Facebook Inc., said in an interview last week.

She says that Facebook has tried to make diversity top of mind at "every micromoment." For instance, when a manager is writing a performance review for a woman, a prompt pops up reminding them to use the same language as they would for a male employee under review.

Other companies measure progress in different ways. For instance, the Clorox Company challenged its Asian, Black, Latino, LGBT, millennials, and women resource groups to come up with ideas for new consumer products, says Erby L. Foster Jr., Clorox's director of inclusion and diversity until last month. Mr. Foster left to start his own consulting business. Clorox's Asian resource group developed and launched a new line of food storage containers, for example.

At Intel, Ms. Brown focused on gathering data each time she worked on an initiative, she said in the February interview.

When she wanted to address why employees of color left Intel more frequently than white employees, for example, her team surveyed more than 15,000 employees about barriers to retention and promotion. One finding was that not all open positions included a job posting. Under her watch, Intel met its goal of making 45% of new hires women or people of color, and increased the percentage of women in the company's workforce by more than 2 percentage points.

Ms. Brown also worked on a service allowing employees to share confidentially if they were having cultural problems on their team or if they felt like they didn't have a plan to reach the next job tier.

Intel executives had told hiring managers and recruiters that the diversity programs wouldn't affect the qualifications of who they chose to hire and promote, according to the former Intel employee. Intel declined to comment.

But the feedback still had an impact: Intel decided to close the comments section on diversity-related posts.

--John Simons and Jack Nicas contributed to this article.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 10, 2017 13:02 ET (17:02 GMT)