Why Google should call some Black friends

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Google just did something few tech companies have shown interest in doing: It seriously confronted the issue of diversity – or, rather, its lack thereof.

The company issued a report on its workforce diversity, and let’s just say, if it had wanted to, the report could have been summarized as follows: “When it comes to Latino and black employees, we have almost no diversity.” At the moment, 2 percent of Google’s workforce is black, despite black Americans making up 13 percent of the population. Hispanics are just 3 percent of its workforce, despite being nearly 17 percent of the population.

To its credit, Google not only commissioned the report – something it did not have to do – but also shared the results, something it also did not have to do.

“We’ve always been reluctant,” said Senior Vice President Laszlo Bock, “to publish numbers about the diversity of our workforce at Google. We now realize we were wrong, and that it’s time to be candid about the issues. Put simply, Google is not where we want to be when it comes to diversity, and it’s hard to address these kinds of challenges if you’re not prepared to discuss them openly, and with the facts.”

Compare the company’s newfound embrace of transparency with the ongoing and well-documented reticence of its Silicon Valley peers. Bock cited a number of usual suspects for the lack of diversity, including a lower number of Hispanics and African Americans seeking STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) degrees. He noted that the company has invested resources in turning the academic tide. But that’s just one solution.

Google

In this May 30, 2007 file photo, Google employees work on their laptops at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. In a groundbreaking disclosure, Google on Wednesday, May 28, 2014 revealed how very white and male its workforce is — just 2 percent of its Googlers are black, 3 percent are Hispanic, and 30 percent are women. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File)

As I discussed earlier this week, employers have the tools, if they make it a goal, to ensure that they have a diverse workforce. The problem is that data shows that many of those with hiring power unconsciously discriminate against those who are not like them, in ways that they are not even aware of. With the immense racial imbalance at Google – where 61 percent of the workforce is white – that means diversity will simply not be possible unless the company aggressively seeks it. Commissioning this report is a great first step. Doing something about its unfortunate findings is the most important step.

Diversifying the pipeline in academia is hugely important. So are the efforts of nonprofits like All Star Code, aimed at inspiring young people of color early in their lives to pursue the STEM career path. But if Google is truly serious about diversity, perhaps the most important thing it can do is this: Ask for help.

In other words, I am, genuinely and without any snark, encouraging the company to reach out to individual members of minority groups whom folks at Google know, or know to have tremendous influence and reach—and, most importantly, overflowing Rolodexes.

Yes, I’m telling Google it needs a Black friend. And definitely more than just one.

I have lost count, in all seriousness, of how many times someone has asked me for a referral because he or she or a particular organization is struggling to find diverse candidates for a speaking engagement, interview opportunity or panel discussion. Usually the outreach is sheepish, as if they are embarrassed to be asking and terrified of being ridiculed the way Mitt Romney was for his “binders full of women” comment during a presidential debate.

But here’s the thing. I’d much rather have a semi-awkward conversation about race that involves asking me for help – and might help more people who look like me end up with a seat at the table – than continue being one of the only ones at certain tables and in certain rooms.

So kudos to Google for having the courage to issue this report. Now it should have the courage to genuinely do something about it, starting with picking up the phone and asking influential minorities for advice about what to do next, so that the results are not the same next year.

(Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.)

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