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Is The Memo Controversy A Pivot Point On Diversity For Google?

Danielle Brown speaks during TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2016. She is Google's new chief diversity officer, a position she previously held at Intel.
Noam Galai
Getty Images for TechCrunch
Danielle Brown speaks during TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2016. She is Google's new chief diversity officer, a position she previously held at Intel.

Google fired a male employee after he wrote an incendiary memo about women at work. But now what?

The tech giant has a poor track record when it comes to diversity. A new leader at Google could have the solution — if her bosses want to listen.

At the center of this storm is the company's new chief diversity officer, Danielle Brown. Just a few weeks into the job, she's been out front. In her own memo, she rebuked the controversial post by the fired male employee, saying simply: "It advanced incorrect assumptions about gender."

She also said diversity is a "fundamental part" of Google's values. "We are unequivocal in our belief that diversity and inclusion are critical to our success as a company, and we'll continue to stand for that and be committed to it for the long haul," she wrote.

But what Google does next — what commitment it makes, if any, to look more like the rest of America — remains to be seen. What Brown did just before coming to Google may provide a clue.

Brown talked with NPR last year, while at the chipmaker Intel. "I think maybe two or three specific things that explain our success," she said, "The first thing is accountability. Setting these goals, communicating the goals, tying pay to the goals, I think that's been key."

She was at an important place, at an important time. Intel had decided to do something no other tech giant had done before: publicly state how many women and underrepresented minorities it wanted to recruit, and how many it managed to retain. Of all new hires, Intel told the world, at least 40 percent have to be women or underrepresented minorities.

"I think publishing the data, showing our employees the data, and regularly looking at and talking about our data — transparency really helps us see where we're hurting, where we need to fix, and jibe in with quick solutions," she explained.

Google has thrown money at the diversity problem — more than a quarter-billion dollars, according to Axios. But this company, which values metrics so much has not publicly stated any measurable goals when it comes to diversity hiring or employee retention.

In its latest diversity report, Google said 31 percent of its employees are women and that women represent 20 percent of the company's tech workers, up from 17 percent three years ago.

But Google hasn't disclosed the numbers of new hires or of exits, by gender and race. And the company has little to show for its efforts thus far.

This heated moment could be a teachable one. The lesson from Intel, Brown explained when she was that company's diversity czar, was: Public pressure and scrutiny makes goals more real.

"We did make tremendous progress on women this year," she said at the time. "And specifically what we were able to do this year is help really narrow the gap in female representation."

NPR requested an interview with Brown, to talk about her plans at her new company. A Google spokesperson declined NPR's request and said: "I can't tell you what the strategy is going to be. I can't say one way or the other if Danielle is going to try to mimic her work at Intel. But the spirit of her success record — that's something we'd like to have here."

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Aarti Shahani is a correspondent for NPR. Based in Silicon Valley, she covers the biggest companies on earth. She is also an author. Her first book, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (out Oct. 1, 2019), is about the extreme ups and downs her family encountered as immigrants in the U.S. Before journalism, Shahani was a community organizer in her native New York City, helping prisoners and families facing deportation. Even if it looks like she keeps changing careers, she's always doing the same thing: telling stories that matter.