Exclusive: Google raising stakes on diversity

Exclusive: Google raising stakes on diversity

Whether it’s building self-driving cars, a fleet of balloons to blanket the world with the Internet or tiny particles to detect cancer, Google is known for thinking big — really big.

Now the Internet giant is digging into its mountains of cash and tapping some of the world’s smartest minds to take on another serious and elusive challenge: cracking the code on the lack of diversity in the technology industry.

Google is raising the stakes in its bid to attract more women and minorities, Nancy Lee, Google’s vice president of people operations, told USA TODAY in an exclusive interview.

Last year Google spent $115 million on diversity initiatives. In 2015, it’s planning to spend $150 million on a far-reaching campaign that stretches from inside the walls of Google into the industry at large, Lee says.

That spending illustrates the urgency and ambition of Google’s diversity efforts.

In January, Intel set aside a $300 million fund for diversity efforts over the next five years, or about $60 million a year. In March, Apple pledged $50 million to non-profit organizations, including the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and the National Center for Women and Information Technology. Facebook would not disclose how much it is investing in diversity efforts.

Lee says it’s not just the dollar amount but Google’s “holistic” strategy to make the tech industry more representative of the populations it serves — from routinely testing hiring, promotion, performance-evaluation and compensation programs for fairness, to embedding engineers at a handful of historically black colleges and universities where they teach students and advise on computer science curriculum.

“Our strategy is extremely long term. Sure, we are doing things that can show an impact maybe this year, maybe next year. But we recognize that there is not enough talent entering into our industry and that we have a lot of work to do,” Lee says.

Diversity strategist Joelle Emerson says other technology companies are learning from Google, which is taking an innovative and data-driven approach to closing the gender and racial gap.

“Google is the first company that has been talking publicly about anything innovative,” said Emerson, founder and CEO of Paradigm. “So much of what we are all doing is watching what Google is trying and trying similar things.”

Diversity is a topic that the tech industry used to shrink from. It’s never been much of a secret that tech companies are largely staffed by white and Asian men. People just seemed to accept the lack of women, African Americans or Hispanics as part of tech culture. And for years companies kept critics at bay and their workforce demographics under lock and key.

That changed about a year ago when Google decided to kick off a more open dialogue about diversity by publishing a report that revealed the lopsided demographics of its employees. Seven out of 10 people who work at Google are men. Latinos make up just 3% of the workforce, African Americans 2%.

The disclosure triggered a wave of similar reports from Facebook, Apple, Yahoo and others.

his isn’t altruism. Google wants to secure its own future by establishing itself as a leader in diversity as it grows beyond search advertising into myriad other businesses in an increasingly global marketplace.

Whites are expected to become a minority in the USA by 2044, Latino and African-American buying power is on the rise and Silicon Valley has ambitions that now lap the globe. Having women and minorities building, not just using, the products dreamed up here has become a competitive advantage.

“The tech industry really understands that the future of our industry means we have to be more inclusive,” Lee says. “We are literally building products for the world. It can’t be this homogeneous.”

For years Google operated in hyper-growth mode, racing to staff up and paying scant attention to the increasingly skewed demographics of its workforce, even when the company came under intense pressure from civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson.’

Prompted in 2013 by the “suspicion we had evolved into an organization that did not look the way it ought to,” Google launched a major push on diversity at the behest of Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Lee says.

“They know the products we are producing are meant for the world’s population, and only if people who are using (that technology) are also its creators and innovators can we can really get the kind of innovation we need to solve problems,” Lee says.

Google now has dozens of initiatives that executives hope will sew seeds of change. The initiatives fall broadly into two buckets: what Google is doing at Google and what Google is doing more broadly.

To change the demographics inside Google, the company is casting a wider net for new hires and creating more paths into Google for women and minorities.

Google historically has recruited from about 100 schools. But while 14% of Hispanic college enrollment is in four-year colleges, they make up just 7% of enrollment at the 200 most selective schools.

So in 2014 Google more than doubled the number of recruitment schools, targeting ones with rigorous computer science programs and diverse student bodies. Nearly 20% of its university hires came from the new batch of schools which included Alabama A&M and University of Missouri-Columbia, Lee says.

Google has also increased the number of female software engineers it’s recruiting to 22% in 2014 from 14% in 2010. That’s higher than the national rate, Lee notes. Women make up 18% of computer science graduates in the U.S.

Getting women and minorities in the door is the first step. Google is also focused on creating “an environment of fairness and inclusion where people can bring their whole selves to work,” Lee says.

Among the key initiatives: Employees can volunteer 20% of their time to work on diversity projects through a program called Diversity Core. In 2015, more than 500 Google employees will work on projects at Google and in local communities, Lee says.

More than half of Google’s nearly 56,000 employees have attended a 90-minute seminar on unconscious bias. Now Google is offering “bias busting” workshops, hands-on sessions that give Google employees practical tips on addressing unconscious bias. Nearly 2,000 have taken the workshop.

“The long game” for Google is expanding the pool of women and minorities going into computer science, Lee says.

Last June Google debuted the Made with Code campaign, which is designed to get young women excited about learning to code. Another program, CS First, makes it possible for a teacher, coach or volunteer to teach middle school students the basics of coding. Google is also working with Hollywood to change the popular perception of computer scientists.

Economic opportunity is the theme of another set of efforts aimed at closing the digital divide. Google runs bootcamps for minorities and women to teach them how to harness the power of technology to boost their small businesses. Earlier this year Google launched a supplier diversity program to create a more diverse pool of vendors.

“There is just this incredible energy and momentum around diversity,” said Yolanda Mangolini, Google’s director of diversity and inclusion. Google employees throughout the organization are now regularly having conversations about growing diversity and combating bias, Mangolini says.

“We have definitely increased awareness,” says Jessica Moore, a Google people operations associate who spends 20% of her time on diversity. But, she added, Google “still has work to make sure everyone feels bought in to advancing diversity.”

The reality: The effects of Google’s current efforts may not be felt for years.

In coming weeks Google will release its workforce demographics for the second time and the status quo won’t have budged much.

It’s not easy for an organization of nearly 56,000 to make substantial progress in such a short span of time, Lee says.

“Early indications show promise, but we know that with an organization our size, year-on-year growth and meaningful change is going to take time,” she says. “There isn’t a simple solution to solving the diversity challenges our company and industry faces.”