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Google Employees Demand Company Rehire Black Scientist Who Spoke Up About Diversity


Google employees are demanding the company rehire and promote a Black research scientist who spoke out for more women and people of color. As NPR's Bobby Allyn reports, her ouster has led many inside and outside the company to question whether Google can tolerate views that challenge its culture. And we should note Google is a financial sponsor of NPR.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: When Google ousted researcher Timnit Gebru, she felt targeted.

TIMNIT GEBRU: My theory is that they had wanted me out for a while because I spoke up a lot about, you know, issues related to Black people, women, marginalization.

ALLYN: It's something she really believes in, but it was also her job at Google to research how technology can make things like discrimination worse. She focused on artificial intelligence, the systems that make searching Google easy by trying to predict what you're looking for. Gebru, speaking with NPR's Steve Inskeep, says Google was excited about what she represented, but the company's support stopped there.

GEBRU: They wanted to have my presence but not me exactly. You know what I mean? I don't know. They wanted to have the idea of me being at Google but not the reality of me being at Google.

ALLYN: Several of her former colleagues have written a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai asking that Gebru be reinstated, saying her departure has been demoralizing. They also ask that they not be retaliated against. The fear is not unfounded. Google has punished people who have spoken out. Two years ago thousands of employees walked off the job to protest how Google handled sexual harassment. Its organizers say the company fired them. More recently, a federal labor agency accused Google of illegally firing employees who tried to unionize. William Fitzgerald spent a decade doing communications at Google.

WILLIAM FITZGERALD: Google built this whole company up on the idea that we'll give you free food and a free coffee and pay you well and give you comfortable bean bags to work on, you know, as long as you toed the company line.

ALLYN: Google's official policy is if you see something you don't think is right, speak up. Fitzgerald says speaking up can also mean being shown the door.

FITZGERALD: Anybody who continues to challenge their power will get squashed or pushed out. And this has been a thing that's been happening at Google for years now, and I think we're only now hearing about it.

ALLYN: Inside Google, women of color and other underrepresented groups who looked up to Gebru have been especially shaken, says former Google employee Ifeoma Ozoma.

IFEOMA OZOMA: There are serious concerns around her identity as a Black woman and the concerns she raised around diversity being the main driver for both the firing and the way it was done and the speed.

ALLYN: Google CEO Pichai wrote to staff that he's aware the episode has, quote, "seeded doubts and led some in our community to question their place at Google." He apologized for that and committed to fix it. Google declined to be interviewed for this story. It points to emails in which executives say they vigorously support free thinking and independent research, but now even that is up for debate. Before she left Google, the company abruptly asked Gebru to retract a research paper critical of Google's technology. Computer scientist Emily Bender at the University of Washington was one of her co-authors. Bender says she feels for researchers inside Google right now.

EMILY BENDER: I can't imagine that it wouldn't have a chilling effect on people who are working there, trying to work on this but now looking over their shoulder, wondering when is something all of a sudden going to be retracted and their work going to be basically taken away from them.

ALLYN: At Google, Gebru's former team says there needs to be, quote, "swift and structural changes if this work is to continue and if the legitimacy of the field as a whole is to persevere."

Bobby Allyn, NPR News, San Francisco.

KELLY: And you can hear more of Timnit Gebru's interview with Steve Inskeep tomorrow on Morning Edition.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we incorrectly say Emily Bender is a computer scientist. In fact, she is a linguist.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 4, 2021 at 11:00 PM CST
In this report, we incorrectly say Emily Bender is a computer scientist. In fact, she is a linguist.
Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.