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Google’s Dismissal Of A Top AI Researcher Shows How Little Progress Has Been Made In Listening To Discrimination Concerns

Timnit Gebru was one of Google’s most prominent Black female employees until last week, when she was dismissed from her role as co-leader of Google’s Ethical AI team. 

According to reporting by Axios, “Google had refused to give permission for Gebru and other Google researchers to attach their name or the company’s name to an AI ethics paper that had been accepted for publication. In response, Gebru sent her superiors an e-mail with several demands and said that if those conditions couldn’t be met she would work out a timeline for her to leave Google with minimal disruption to her team. Instead, Google abruptly said it was ‘accepting her resignation’ and cut off her access to internal e-mail.”

Timnit Gebru is not just a random employee. She’s a highly respected leader in the field of AI ethics research, cofounder of the Black in AI affinity group, and, as MIT puts it, “is known for coauthoring a groundbreaking paper that showed facial recognition to be less accurate at identifying women and people of color, which means its use can end up discriminating against them.” 

Since her ouster, more than 2,300 Googlers and 3,700 academic, industry, and civil society supporters have signed a petition supporting Dr. Gebru and saying that, “Instead of being embraced by Google as an exceptionally talented and prolific contributor, Dr. Gebru has faced defensiveness, racism, gaslighting, research censorship, and now a retaliatory firing.”

The blowback became so loud that on Wednesday that Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google’s parent company Alphabet, issued an apology of sorts, saying, “I’ve heard the reaction to Dr. Gebru’s departure loud and clear: it seeded doubts and led some in our community to question their place at Google. I want to say how sorry I am for that, and I accept the responsibility of working to restore your trust.”

But as someone who recently conducted a study called Many Leaders Don’t Want To Hear About Discrimination In The Workplace, I can tell you that restoring trust is going to take a lot of work.

My firm, Leadership IQ, surveyed 5,778 Americans and found that that people do not feel like their corporate leaders are listening to concerns about discrimination in the workplace. For example, only 13% of Black employees feel that they can always report concerns about discrimination in the workplace without causing problems for themselves. And only 23% of women say that if they reported concerns about discrimination in the workplace, top leadership would always take meaningful corrective action.

Earlier this year, in the wake of widespread social justice protests, scores of companies released public statements about how they want to listen to their employees’ concerns about workplace discrimination, brimming with phrases like, “we need to start listening” and “now is the time for listening.”

But it’s not enough to listen; companies need to listen without defensiveness, without rationalizations and without retribution. In the Leadership IQ study, we found that only 11% of Black employees feel that management always listens to concerns about discrimination in the workplace without getting defensive, while white employees are approximately 250% more likely to feel that management always listens without defensiveness.

I wish I could tell corporate leaders that listening to these concerns will be easy or free from discomfort, but that would be a lie. Self-flagellation and wallowing in misery aren’t necessary, but hearing these concerns is going to hurt a little. And some leaders will experience cognitive dissonance. That’s essentially the unpleasant mental tension that occurs when someone holds two psychologically inconsistent beliefs (or attitudes or opinions).

Listening requires seeing the world through another’s eyes, and when you’ve done it successfully, you will have learned something new. You’ll have gained a new insight into, and a deeper understanding of, how the other person feels and thinks. Atticus Finch, the moral guide and conscience in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, sets this as a key life lesson for his daughter when he tells her, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Sundar Pichai (hopefully) knows how much work this is going to take. In his apology memo he says, “It’s incredibly important to me that our Black, women, and underrepresented Googlers know that we value you and you do belong at Google. And the burden of pushing us to do better should not fall on your shoulders. We started a conversation together earlier this year when we announced a broad set of racial equity commitments to take a fresh look at all of our systems from hiring and leveling, to promotion and retention, and to address the need for leadership accountability across all of these steps. The events of the last week are a painful but important reminder of the progress we still need to make.”

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