More Racial Diversity at Tech Companies Can Help Eliminate Biased Products

By Nicole Lewis July 7, 2020
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black woman tech worker

​In the wake of national and international protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd while in police custody, companies are revisiting their approach to diversity and inclusion (D&I) policies.

Innovative technology companies have little to show for efforts they've made in previous years to raise the number and profile of black employees at their firms.

  • Within the past six years, the percentage of black employees in Facebook's workforce has risen from 2 percent in 2014 to 3.8 percent today. 
  • At Apple, 9 percent of the company's workforce is black. Only 3 percent of employees in leadership positions are black.
  • The latest diversity report from Google shows black employees made up 5.5 percent of its workforce in 2019, slightly higher than the 4.8 percent recorded in 2018.

"Corporate America has to understand that hiring African-Americans isn't a separate issue within the company; it's a core issue that reflects the ethics of a company—what is right and what is wrong for the company and its values," said Will Griffin, chief ethics officer at Hypergiant LLC, a company in Austin, Texas, that develops artificial intelligence (AI) products and invests in other AI technologies and companies.

While strengthening D&I programs is necessary, having more black leaders may make a bigger difference. Griffin believes companies should embark on a comprehensive approach that increases the number of black leaders serving on boards of directors, and he says hiring more black CEOs and executives can bring about a fairer and more equitable business climate.

"That's the American dream. In order to scale up the number of African-Americans at various levels of corporate America and make their growth within a company more sustainable, there should be more African-American board directors and C-suite executives that have equity in their company," Griffin said.

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Concerns abound that a lack of black software engineers, machine learning engineers, data scientists, business intelligence developers and computer vision engineers will lead to further bias in technology products that are supposed to support D&I efforts.

"When companies fail to employ African-Americans, they commit what I call sins of omission," said Daryl Plummer, vice president, distinguished analyst, chief of research and manager of the fellows program at research and advisory firm Gartner.

Plummer, who advises technology companies such as Google, Microsoft and Amazon and their customers, said without highly skilled black employees who can contribute to product development, technology manufacturers run the risk of building and selling products that aren't sensitive to racial bias and often perpetuate that bias.

Plummer noted that machine learning, for example, is a technology that depends on thousands of data points. It often learns from information that can be decades old and biased in favor of certain institutions, genders and races.

Plummer, who is also chairman of Gartner's Black Analyst Caucus, said job posts are written to find a certain kind of person, not necessarily a certain skill set. He noted that employers at tech companies want to know if candidates went to certain colleges, attended certain training courses or have worked with a vast number of datasets.

"If you come from the socioeconomic situation that most blacks do in America, you are not going to ever have had an opportunity to acquire the training and touch the technology these companies are looking for," he said. "As a result, there is a racial bias built into the very criteria used to select the talent that is needed to fill these jobs to build the next generation of technology."

Griffin noted that Amazon's attempt to build an AI-driven recruiting system that ended up downgrading resumes containing the word "women" is one example of how AI can be detrimental to a company's diversity efforts. On the other hand, an AI recruiting system that is built using data from black employees can assist a company in hiring more black employees.

"Companies can use AI to build recruiting systems that have a preference for words associated with African-Americans, like 'black student associations,' 'African-American leadership associations,' 'historically black colleges and universities,' 'African-American sororities and fraternities,' 'African-American scholarly and academic associations,' and 'African-American publications,' " Griffin said.

Brad Gebert, managing director of Paragon Labs, a Society for Human Resource Management- sponsored innovation lab that focuses on workplace innovation, said the technology used to support D&I programs can be improved, and the groups working to advance the technology should be more diverse.

"Technology is getting better, but it has a long way to go," Gebert said. "The training sets that are used for training AI, for example, are not representative of the population, and development teams need to go through D&I training, as well implicit-bias training. They need to know what implicit bias is and how it can impact the work they do."

In the meantime, companies are pushing ahead with their latest D&I initiatives.

Amid recent allegations that Google has rolled back its D&I programs, the company announced fresh efforts to improve representation of black employees at senior levels, saying it will commit to improve leadership representation of underrepresented groups by 30 percent by 2025.

Facebook recently announced that it wants to increase the number of employees of color who occupy leadership positions over the next five years by 30 percent. And, in a sign that Facebook intends to raise its diversity efforts, its chief diversity officer will now report directly to Sheryl Sandberg, the company's chief operating officer.

Microsoft announced that it will double the number of black people managers, senior individual contributors and senior leaders in the United States by 2025.

As a new set of initiatives pushes tech companies to hire more black employees, HR professionals should approach their company's CEO and board members with a renewed effort to explain how the company's values need to be aligned with diversity, Griffin said. He suggested that HR executives ask company leaders if they think diversity is important to the company and part of the company's values. "If the answer is yes, then lay out the support that you need to enforce that, and make sure that the CEO and board signs on. If the answer is no, quit and go work for a company where the CEO and board support it. If you can't get D&I support, then you're fighting an uphill battle."

Nicole Lewis is a freelance journalist based in Miami. She covers business, technology and public policy.

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