Google has a problem with diversity and equal pay, so the federal government is suing them. The problems of the world’s most prominent Internet company reflect the larger issues of Silicon Valley’s fairness gap. To those who much has been given, much is expected. Google (and companies like it) were supposed to deliver the future and do no evil. What gives?
Every once and again, I see the kind of small-mindedness which drives home the large, amorphous cloud of non-specific vice that predominates in Silicon Valley. Google is waging a lawyer-war with the United States Department of Labor. One of the final acts of the Obama Administration was to file suit against Oracle, Palantir, and Google, for “hiring discrimination and pay disparities,” according to Seth Fiegerman at CNN Money. With Silicon Valley making inroads at the Trump administration—Peter Thiel is famously tied to the Donald—who knows how long the suit will last?
The Department claimed that Oracle paid Caucasian men more, and that Palantir scoffed at the prospect of hiring Asian applicants. And Google? This is not Google’s first rodeo, of course. Per Sidney Fussell, in Gizmodo:
For a company with totally unremarkable diversity numbers, Google is weirdly nonspecific about how it addresses pay inequity in the post, saying both that it doesn’t underpay women, but won’t support having a third-party certify that. ... The Department of Labor, however, asserts that women are grossly underpaid compared to men at the company.
According to Sam Levin in The Guardian,
“We found systemic compensation disparities against women pretty much across the entire workforce,” Janette Wipper, a DoL regional director, testified in court in San Francisco on Friday. ... Janet Herold, regional solicitor for the DoL, said: “The investigation is not complete, but at this point the department has received compelling evidence of very significant discrimination against women in the most common positions at Google headquarters.” Herold added: “The government’s analysis at this point indicates that discrimination against women in Google is quite extreme, even in this industry.”
It’s no secret that the tech industry has a sizable issue with diversity. As Tekla S. Perry pointed out in a December 2016 post in IEEE Spectrum’s “View from the Valley” blog, a Pinterest engineer, Tracy Chou, wrote about this issue way back in 2013. Chou’s post went viral. She pointed fingers.
“Every company has some way of hiding or muddling the data on women actually in engineering roles,” she wrote. “The actual numbers I’ve seen and experienced in industry are far lower than anybody is willing to admit. This means nobody is having honest conversations about the issue.” CNN, Choi said, had investigated from 2011 to 2013—and found tech companies were unwilling to release demographic data on their workforce diversity. That began a release of information from tech companies. Again, this was in 2013.
As Fussell points out, Google’s system for reckoning worker pay is not gender blind. Performance ratings play a huge role, and these managers cannot adjust. In his article, Fussell writes that it’s:
almost ridiculous to assert that gender plays absolutely no part in performance or ratings when there’s such an enormous gender disparity at the company, with an 80 percent male tech labor force. Wouldn’t that play out in performance ratings? How does Google audit performance ratings for gender bias? How do they know such heavily skewed environments don’t affect performance in the first place? The company hasn’t answered these questions and according to the Department of Labor, Google’s problems are systemic, not incidental.
But how could this be? The cyberlibertarian John Perry Barlow, who once participated in a comedy roast for the very human-like Steve Jobs, captured the mood of the Valley perfectly: “We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.” He wrote from Davos, in the Year of our Digital Lord 1996. “We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.” Given the go-go futurism of the tech industry, what can be the reason for these strange positions? Why would it be so hard for Google and these other companies to change?
In her 2016 post—three years after Chou’s piece—Perry described an Atlantic conference of Silicon Valley insiders where the participants were “refreshingly blunt.” There was various talk about practices and playing defense. Then one member, Monique Woodard, gave away the entire game. The quote is worth reading at length, just to go all the way inside the Matrix:
The lack of diversity stems from hidden and systemic bias, believes Monique Woodard, a partner in 500 startups. “If you turned off the imported talent, would you look to Oakland and Atlanta? I’m not sure people would,” she said.
What the diversity problem isn’t about, many agreed, is the pipeline. “Largely the pipeline answer is a bit of a myth,” Woodard said. “There are large numbers of minority and women engineering professionals coming out of school every year. But where are you going to find them? Howard University? Hampton University?” Silicon Valley companies aren’t recruiting at those schools, and as a result, she said, those graduates “are going to government jobs, large national organizations—they aren’t coming to tech, to startups.” Changing the practices that perpetuate the overwhelmingly white and male character of the Silicon Valley workforce are not going to be easy, the conference discussions made clear, because these practices have become so ingrained in the culture.
That is a pipeline problem. It is not a myth. However, reformers and the Department of Labor are dealing with a much older challenge. You see, the elect does not like to be denied. The problem isn’t diversity. The problem is that you want us to hire dummies! That’s Woodard’s point. Here is the central problem: the gurus of the Valley seem themselves as fair, unprejudiced agents of change. They get it. They want to hire other people who get it, who are also effective, profitable producers of change. But their idea of hipness turns to be, well, just like them.
In his big Sixties book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the journalist Tom Wolfe quotes the novelist and psychedelic prophet Ken Kesey. In this passage, Kesey is discussing enlightenment with his crew of psychedelic adventurers, The Merry Pranksters, who traveled by bus:
“There are going to be times,” says Kesey, “when we can’t wait for somebody. Now, you’re either on the bus or off the bus. If you’re on the bus, and you get left behind, then you’ll find it again. If you’re off the bus in the first place—then it won’t make a damn.” And nobody had to have it spelled out for them. Everything was becoming allegorical, understood by the group mind, and especially this: “You’re either on the bus … or off the bus.” ... In all these religious circles, the groups became tighter and tighter by developing their own symbols, terminology, life styles, and, gradually, simple cultic practices, rites, often involving music and art, all of which grew out of the new experience and seemed weird or incomprehensible to those who have never had it. ... Or: you’re either on the bus or off the bus.
The writer Stewart Brand was on Kesey’s bus, and that’s an appropriate coincidence. There are about a billion ties between the counterculture and Silicon Valley, and Brand is one of the big ones. “Ready or not, computers are coming to the people,” Brand wrote in a 1972 issue of Rolling Stone. “That’s good news, maybe the best since psychedelics.” Brand spent a large part of the Hippie Era riding the bus with Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters (the people who brought you the Acid Revolution) and then founded the world’s first online community, the Well. The closer you look, the stranger and stronger the net of coincidences between the Bay, religious movements, counterculture, and the computers grows.
What Woodard describes is the same way of thinking. But where are you going to find them? You are on the bus or off the bus, friends. In a nice twist of poetic reality, Google sends buses in San Francisco every day, to pick up its employees. You are on the bus. Silicon Valley springs against the egalitarian impulse of American life, and grows from an older, transplanted root: The Puritan notion of exodus, of relocating to new shores, to protect the flock from the unfeeling, unthinking horde of the unredeemed. To build a shining city on a hill. Or in a valley, as it were.
It was Wolfe’s particular genius to spy that the genuine old reforming Utopian impulse had never vanished from the United States. Even the sections of America which rejected the imperial exceptionalism of the mainstream culture wanted their own unsoiled Jerusalem. Ayn Rand invented Galt’s Gulch in her book Atlas Shrugged, which most of these tech guys read in high school. Thiel’s company, Palantir, is named for a device in Lord of the Rings, in which the wisest and most beautiful makers, the elves, travel across the sea to the West, far from the fallen Earth, and its teeming occupants—the booming and boorish Empire of Man.
Of the 19th-century Utopians, Wolfe wrote, “some of them, notably Owen and Fourier, thought all this might come to pass first in the United States. So they set up communes here: Owen’s New Harmony commune in Indiana and Fourier-style ‘phalanx’ settlements …” Wolfe, with his fetish for status, tied this religious impulse into elect brotherhoods. In his astronaut book, The Right Stuff, Wolfe discussed the special quality possessed by the most supremely talented class of American fighter pilots. Regarding the “right stuff,” Old Tom wrote:
“Perhaps because it could not be talked about, the subject began to take on superstitious and even mystical outlines. A man either had it or he didn’t! There was no such thing as having most of it. Moreover, it could blow at any seam. ... All the hot young fighter jocks began trying to test the limits themselves in a superstitious way. They were like believing Presbyterians of a century before who used to probe their own experience to see if they were truly among the elect. ... But somehow one got the message that the man who truly had it could ignore those rules …”
We can see the idea-set that led to Google’s strange practices. As long as Silicon Valley is a corporate, meritocratic elect with a messianic drive to do … uh, whatever it is they want to do … this will remain. The majority of the media certainly won’t call them out on anything they do. Silicon Valley could hire from Ohio State tomorrow. But they won’t. Most elite businesses have this problem: the unfair filtering-out of decent people. But the Valley’s unique mindset makes this a dicier proposition. And this school of thought is institutionalized. The elect only hire the elect, and due to the makeup of our universities and social circles, the new elect tend to look a lot like the old elect. Silicon Valley wants to disrupt a lot of things: The practice of hiring their own reflections is not one of them.
There are stories strewn across the Internet about what it’s like to work at Google: you can find an entire thread on Quora about it. The key is to listen for the telling phrase amidst the detail-shower:
“In my case, I went through five interviews focused on leadership, role-related knowledge, problem solving, and “Googleyness.”
“Do your homework. Make sure you understand our vision, know our products, and are aware of how your unique story contributes to making Google such a special place.”
“Working at Google is a transformational experience.”
“Then there are these amazing projects and features that people are working on that you feel: wow, I am witnessing the future being built.”
“The best thing about google is that (at least in engineering and ops) the vast majority of folks you work with are excellent in their own right.”
We’re on the bus! As Grace Donnelly wrote in a Fortune magazine piece from March:
“Among 1,400 tech workers polled, 83% think diversity in tech is important, but only half believe improvements need to be made at their own company. ... Black and Latinx tech workers combined make up just 5% of the tech workforce, according to the study, and women only 24%. Despite working in an industry with demographics that fall drastically short of matching those of the U.S. workforce, nearly 95% of those surveyed gave the industry, their companies, and their teams a passing grade.”
Let us speak plainly. Equality is unimportant to them, and other tech companies. You can see the sealed-elevator logic at work: gosh, if there is not equality on the bus—in the New Jerusalem—then that is a problem with the purity of the strivers, not with the bus itself. And no wonder! Equality would mean self-criticism, and that would imply self-consciousness. But if you’re on the bus, the precise point is that the outside world simply doesn’t comprehend—they haven’t had the moment of insight. They don’t know; they can’t get it. All those metrics and algorithms, and that great search engine of theirs still can’t find the problem.
Which spells trouble for their brand. For the idea of the Valley. For if Google and its brother companies can slip the surly bonds of earth—if we can see “the future being built” and working there is “a transformational experience”—then why can’t they pay their taxes? Why can’t they get privacy right? Why can’t they create an equitable work-space?
You could say the nature of gigantic corporations in late capitalism is to be oblivious and exploitative. You could say I’m being unfair to an immense company which is trying to do its thing without stepping on too many toes. But this misses the point. The dollars and affection we throw at these titans—at Google, particularly—is founded precisely on them being age-defying, world-beating, rules-vanquishing giants. The iron hand of necessity should be one more hurdle for them to easily jump. Of course: if they can’t deliver the future they promised, then they deserve none of the praise the world heaps on them. Google should make sure “Don’t Be Evil” isn’t just “Be Evil” with PR marching out front.