Google may be biased but it is done unconsciously

In attempting to correct its poor gender diversity, Google is using social psychology research known as unconscious bias

Seven out of 10 people who work at Google are men. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Seven out of 10 people who work at Google are men. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg


Google, like many tech companies, is a man’s world. Founded by a pair of men, its executive team is overwhelmingly male, and its workforce is dominated by men. Overall, seven in 10 people who work at Google are male. Men make up 83 per cent of Google’s engineering employees and 79 per cent of its managers. In a report last year, Google said that of its 36 executives and highest-ranking managers, three are women.

Google’s leaders say they are unhappy about the poor gender diversity, and the severe under-representation of blacks and Hispanics on its workforce. So they have a strategy to improve these numbers, the centrepiece 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, work.

In some ways Google’s plan to fix its own diversity issues resembles many of its most ambitious product ideas, from self-driving cars to 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 it is no longer 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 workforce might become representative of the population, or whether it will ever get there.

“It’s terrific that they’re doing this,” says Freada Kapor Klein, an entrepreneur who has long studied workplace diversity, and who is the co-chairwoman of 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 says it has been trying to improve its diversity for years by sponsoring programmes to increase the number of women and minorities who go into tech, and meticulously studying how 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.

This prompted similar reports across the industry, with Facebook, Apple, Yahoo and several other tech giants issuing similarly dismal numbers about their workforces.

Google’s diversity training workshops, which more than half of Google’s nearly 49,000 employees have attended, are based on emerging research in social psychology known as unconscious bias. These are the hidden, reflexive preferences that shape most people’s world views, 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 Bock read about a study that showed systematic discrimination against female applicants for scientific jobs in academia. The effect was so pervasive that researchers theorised that the discrimination must be governed by unconscious cultural biases rather than overt sexism.

Bock wondered how such unconscious biases played 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. I like to fire those people.”

But 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 loud-mouth sexists.

Improving diversity wasn’t just a feel-good goal. Citing research that shows diverse teams can be more creative than homogeneous ones, Bock argued a diverse workforce could be good for business. Could Google investigate how biases affected people’s work and, more important, could it change its culture?

Google’s human resources group functions like a graduate school research lab, with scientists who analyse internal operations. Bock asked one of these, Brian Welle, to begin a project on hidden biases. Welle came up with a 90-minute lecture targeted at a sceptical, scientifically minded Google employee.

The lecture begins with a dismal fact: everyone is a little bit racist or sexist. If you think you’re immune, take the Implicit Association Test.

Welle explains that some of the most damaging bias is unconscious; people do the worst stuff without meaning to, or even recognising they’re influenced by preferences.

The effect of bias is powerful and not softened by Silicon Valley’s supposedly meritocratic culture. In the lecture, Welle shows a computer simulation of how a systematic 1 per cent bias against women in performance evaluation scores can trickle up through the ranks.

Welle points to research showing the more we make ourselves aware of the role our unconscious plays on decision-making, and the more we try to force others to confront biases, the greater the chance we have to overcome hidden preferences.

Google offered several anecdotes that seem to indicate a less biased culture as a result of the training. Not long ago the company opened a new building, and someone spotted that all the conference rooms were named after male scientists: the names were changed.

During a company presentation, an interviewer asked a male and female manager who had begun sharing an office: “Which of you does the dishes?” The sexist undertone of the question was seized upon by an executive who yelled: “Unconscious bias!”

“Suddenly you go from being completely oblivious to going: ‘Oh my god, it’s everywhere,’” said Bock. – (New York Times)

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