Big Tech's reckoning on race
Tech companies are starting to open their wallets to confront racial inequities, but the issues that the industry needs to address go far beyond just writing checks.
The big picture: The lack of black and Latinx representation in the tech workforce is well documented, but the industry also must grapple with the vast impact its products can have in healing inequality — or worsening it.
Driving the news:
- Apple CEO Tim Cook announced a new $100 million effort aimed at supporting racial equality and at boosting Apple's internal hiring and supplier diversity efforts. The effort, to be led by executive Lisa Jackson, will initially focus on the U.S. before expanding globally.
- Google announced that YouTube is launching a $100 million initiative to support black creators. Separately, Google is expanding its advertising guidelines so that advertisers will no longer be able to target job, housing and credit ads by ZIP code, among other categories. Google already barred such digital redlining based on categories including race, sexual orientation and nationality.
- PayPal announced a $530 million effort aimed at supporting black- and minority-owned businesses and to boost its own internal diversity efforts. Most of the money — $500 million — goes toward a fund that can invest in black and minority entrepreneurs.
- Microsoft said Thursday that it won't allow police in the U.S. to use its facial recognition technology until the government sets rules on its use, following moves earlier this week by IBM, which is getting out of the business entirely, and Amazon, which said it was banning police use of its Rekognition technology for a year.
Yes, but: Silicon Valley still has a ways to go on diversity.
- The makeup of a tech firm's workforce shapes everything from its culture to the biases that are embedded in its products.
- Most large tech companies now report diversity breakdowns of their staffs, showing only modest gains, if any, in boosting the numbers of black and Latinx employees. (As workers of Asian descent are well represented in tech, companies typically track progress on diversity by looking at numbers for black and Latinx employees, as well as gender breakdown.)
- Flashback: Intel was a pioneer in putting significant dollars into diversifying tech, announcing in 2015 that it would spend $300 million to boost its own minority representation, as well as that in the tech industry overall. This year, it pledged to, by 2030, double the number of women and underrepresented minorities in senior leadership.
- The executive suites and boards of large tech companies remain overwhelmingly white.
- Microsoft, Google and IBM all have CEOs of Indian heritage, but there are no black CEOs of Fortune 500 tech companies.
- The venture capital industry, whose choices typically determine which startup founders get funding, is also overwhelmingly white.
- Google has come under fire from employees in recent weeks over actions perceived as downplaying diversity.
- Snap CEO Evan Spiegel reportedly told an all-hands meeting that the company didn't want to release its diversity numbers publicly because it would reinforce the notion that the tech industry is dominated by white men.
- Snap disputed the report’s account of Spiegel’s comments, in a statement saying it is “fully committed to publicly releasing our diversity numbers, along with more context and plans for meaningful action.”
- LinkedIn: At a recent company meeting on diversity, some workers reportedly used the anonymous nature of the event to defend racist notions.
- Facial recognition software has come under fire for both poorly identifying people of color and how it's used, especially by governments and law enforcement. Several companies have called for legislation, but until this week many continued to sell the technology to police anyway. With several big players now halting such sales, one question is whose technologies those agencies will use.
- Artificial intelligence algorithms today too often end up automating society's preexisting biases. That's increasingly dangerous as society turns to machine-learning-based algorithms to help make critical decisions on who gets an apartment, loan or job.
- Culturally insensitive products have resulted from tech long being designed predominately by and for white men. That shows up in subtle ways, including the inability to use accent marks in forms, but also broader ways, such as speech recognition systems performing less well on black voices.