‘There’s a diversity grift right now’: Employees at center of racial controversies at tech companies speak out

Workers who left Google, Uber and Pinterest in highly charged incidents during a year of racial-equity protests tell MarketWatch what they saw and experienced

As the nation’s racial-justice issues were thrust into the spotlight this year, so were the tech industry’s longstanding problems with race.

Tech companies proclaimed their commitment to diversity after widespread protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died at the hands of Minneapolis police officers in May, and as the coronavirus pandemic both highlighted and exacerbated inequity. But within those same companies, tensions boiled over.

Black employees left or were pushed out at companies such as Pinterest Inc. PINS, -1.47% and Alphabet Inc.’s GOOGL, -0.57% GOOG, -0.52% Google — something that has reportedly been happening for years at soon-to-be-public Coinbase Inc. In early June, Cisco Systems Inc. CSCO, 0.18% fired several employees for saying “Black lives don’t matter” during a company diversity forum. Around the same time during a LinkedIn diversity forum, some employees defended racism.

Tech has been singing the diversity tune for nearly a decade, but their workforce demographics numbers have barely budged. They have invested in diversity programs, rolled out initiatives and set specific goals, but as examples of discrimination, harassment and wage gaps persist, significant change from within seems as far away as ever.

The external pressure is mounting. California this year passed a law that will require publicly held corporations to add members of underrepresented groups to their board of directors, and Nasdaq Inc. NDAQ, 0.43% has proposed requiring diversity on boards that list on its exchange. An investment group is urging Uber Technologies Inc. UBER, -0.54% to examine how it treats its “human capital.” An institutional shareholder is asking Amazon.com Inc. AMZN, -0.03% to perform a racial-equity audit. Other shareholders are filing derivative lawsuits over diversity, sexual harassment and more.

Lisa Lambert, a Black venture capitalist who spent two decades at Intel and is now chief technology and innovation officer at National Grid, as well as founder and president of National Grid Partners, said companies need to realize the market opportunity they’re missing out on by falling short on diversity. They need to tie executive and other compensation to progress on diversifying their workforces, she said.

There still is “not enough outside pressure [on companies], but I’m optimistic about what isgoing on,” she said. “You’re one bad article from a stock that falls dramatically.”

Some of the loudest calls for change are coming from former tech employees themselves. MarketWatch talked with some of the employees at the center of controversies involving Pinterest, Google and Uber. In their view, the companies’ actions mean more than their words, and diversity-related donations and initiatives such as employee resource groups have largely failed to make a big difference.

All three companies declined to discuss the specific cases or make their diversity managers and executives available for interviews.

Pinterest

Ifeoma Ozoma worked at Google, Facebook Inc. FB, 0.26% and, most recently, Pinterest. She left Pinterest over the summer after complaining of unequal pay, racism and sexism she experienced in her role as a public policy and social-impact manager.

She said many Silicon Valley companies hold up diversity initiatives as a sign that they care about racial justice, but that it’s all for show.

“I can’t think of a company that really believes [in diversity],” she said in an interview with MarketWatch. “I think it’s B.S. at every company in the valley. There’s a diversity grift right now.” Ozoma said real change will come from companies facing legal and financial consequences. “You cannot change systems of oppression in comfort,” she added.

Pinterest faced a financial consequence: It settled a discrimination lawsuit by Françoise Brougher, its former chief operating officer, for $20 million after she alleged sexist treatment, including unequal pay. The settlement also includes “a commitment of $2.5 million to be used toward advancing women and underrepresented communities in the technology industry,” according to Pinterest’s filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

But Brougher came forward after Ozoma and another Black woman at Pinterest, Aerica Shimizu Banks, left the company and talked publicly about their experiences. The severance the two Black women received — less than one year of salary — pale in comparison to the settlement that Brougher, who is white, secured.

“What does it say that righting wrongs with the Black women who started all of this can be equated to giving money to some unnamed charity cases?” Ozoma said. “We’re not charity cases. We deserve to be made whole and apologized to for the harm done.”

She said that means she and Banks should be compensated for the salary and stock they lost when they were “retaliated out of the jobs in which we were excelling.”

A Pinterest spokesman said the company does not comment on legal matters. As a result of a five-month investigation into its culture after the three women’s high-profile departures, the company said it intends to make changes based on recommendations by a special committee of its board.

As for legal consequences, a shareholder group has sued Pinterest over the case of Ozoma and Banks as well as Brougher, accusing the company and its top executives of systemic racial and gender discrimination. Louise Renne, the onetime city attorney for San Francisco, filed the lawsuit against Pinterest on behalf of the Employees’ Retirement System of Rhode Island. Renne Public Law Group also has pending diversity-related lawsuits against other companies including Oracle Corp. ORCL, -0.07%, Facebook and Cisco.

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Google

In September, Renne Group settled shareholder lawsuits against Google stemming from the company’s handling of sexual misconduct accusations by its former executives. Among other things, Google made a $310 million commitment to diversity programs over the next decade, and agreed to limit restrictions on confidentiality related to settlement of harassment claims.

“The theory of our lawsuits is that everybody talks a good game, but when it comes into practice there is a real deficiency,” Renne said. “What we see now is lip service, or companies putting in SEC statements that they’re committed to diversity and inclusion. Then nothing happens.”

Or something could happen to prompt calls of hypocrisy: Just a couple of months after that multimillion-dollar commitment to diversity, Google faced backlash after the departure of Timnit Gebru, a Black woman and renowned artificial-intelligence researcher. She raised concerns related to diversity issues at the company as well as a research paper she and her team were working on that the company wanted her to retract, and said she had asked to discuss those concerns with management.

Instead, Gebru tweeted that Google abruptly cut off access to her corporate account and informed her it accepted her resignation. Jeff Dean, head of Google AI, said publicly that she resigned, but her team backs Gebru’s version of events.

A Google spokeswoman said the company has no further comment about Gebru’s exit.

Shortly after Gebru’s departure, former Google recruiter April Christina Curley said in a tweet thread that she was fired in September after being retaliated against for advocating for “Black and brown students to be fairly and justly considered for roles at Google.”

A Google spokeswoman said last week that the company last year “welcomed graduates” from 19 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). She also sent a statement that reads in part: “We have a large team of recruiters who work incredibly hard to increase the hiring of Black+ and other underrepresented talent at Google, including a dedicated team that partners and strengthens our relationships with HBCUs. … 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.”

These are just the latest employee controversies for Google. The news about Gebru came the day before the National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint against the company, saying it violated labor laws last year in the termination of two employees who were organizing workers.

Google was among the first tech companies to release its workplace demographics numbers in 2014, after years of pressure to diversify workforces from the news media and groups such as Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition. Now it regularly shares information about its demographics, pay and diversity goals. Like other companies, it also has employee resource groups, or ERGs; Chief Executive Sundar Pichai announced in June that Google would double down on improving Black representation at the company after he had a meeting with its Black ERG.

But Irene Knapp, a software engineer and founding member of the trans employee resource group at Google who left the company last year, told MarketWatch that for the past two years, they saw an “apparent goal of trying to reduce the extent of diversity initiatives. The company became afraid to say the word ‘diversity.’”

Knapp said that happened after Google’s firing of James Damore, a white engineer who attacked the company’s diversity push in a 10-page memo in 2017.

Likewise, Laurence Berland, one of the employees the NLRB said was terminated illegally by Google, told MarketWatch he became “disillusioned about ERGs and diversity initiatives in general” at the company. He was involved with the gay and Jewish ERGs and said they sometimes got in the way of getting people “to understand what true organizing is.”

Knapp said the groups do some good in that they highlight issues that need attention. “At the same time, [they’re] a form of controlled opposition,” they added.

Uber

Eddy Hernandez, a former employee at Uber, eventually came to see the company’s stated commitment to diversity in a negative light. 

An engineer who belonged to the company’s Latino employee-resource group Los Ubers, he voiced his concerns about Uber drivers’ working conditions at the beginning of the pandemic. Hernandez told MarketWatch the “general vibe” was that the company believed it was doing enough for drivers — many of whom are minorities and immigrants — and they should just be grateful that Uber gives them the flexibility to do gig work. 

Then Uber, Lyft Inc. LYFT, -1.83% and other gig companies poured $205 million into a California ballot measure that aimed to exempt them from state law and avoid paying and treating drivers and delivery workers as employees. That was the last straw for Hernandez — he resigned before the initiative passed in November with 58% of the vote, and publicly explained his reasons. In an op-ed for a tech worker newsletter, he also mentioned the financial stability he thought a career in tech would provide for someone like him, who grew up “worried a lot about money” and doing odd jobs with his parents. Instead, he could not reconcile his feeling of solidarity with Uber drivers with “the way we were expected to depersonalize drivers when we discussed them.”

“Uber was talking about ‘Black Lives Matter’ and racial justice, [but] part of that is economic justice,” Hernandez told MarketWatch. “When you treat drivers as a second-class type of employee, you’re depriving them of humanity.”

See: Uber and Lyft win fight to keep drivers as contractors in California

Hernandez said he found the employee resource groups at Uber to “generally be not much help.” Bo Young Lee, Uber’s chief diversity and inclusion executive, had “fire in her eyes” when she talked about white supremacy in the diversity and inclusion ERG, he said. “But as soon as I brought up drivers, it was like [she was] a totally different person. She regurgitated the company’s talking points. That was the last meeting I attended with the D&I group.”

Uber would not make Young Lee available for an interview.

Uber’s workplace culture, employee diversity and treatment of its drivers are a concern for CtW Investment Group, which works with pension funds with investments in the company. 

“Uber’s policies concerning its drivers and delivery persons have prompted regulatory and legal backlash in global markets, exposing the company to increased financial risk,” Dieter Waizenegger, CtW’s executive director, wrote in an October letter to Ronald Sugar, chairman of Uber’s board.

The ride-hailing giant has fought to keep treating its drivers as independent contractors at every turn. In court, Uber’s lawyers have argued that Uber provides services to drivers, not the other way around.

“Uber saying drivers are not central to their business is cognitive dissonance,” Dieter Waizenegger, CtW’s executive director, said in an interview with MarketWatch.

See: Race has played a large role in Uber and Lyft’s fight to preserve their business models

“[Mostly] people of color are doing the driving, while white people are running the show,” Waizenegger added. “The company needs to explain itself and what it’s doing to increase diversity.”

After Sugar responded to CtW’s letter with details about diversity in Uber’s workplace but not among its drivers, Waizenegger said the group will continue to press Uber on the issue. He also noted that Uber’s plan to try to expand its California win on the worker-classification issue to a national level will continue to keep the scrutiny on Uber’s business model. 

“This issue will not go away,” Waizenegger said.  

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