Why George Floyd’s death could change Silicon Valley

Jul 01, 2020

4 mins

Why George Floyd’s death could change Silicon Valley
Laetitia VitaudLab expert

Future of work author and speaker

More than one month after the death of George Floyd, an African-American killed by a police officer in Minneapolis on May 25, the movements to denounce racism are targeting all dimensions of social life and all sectors, including tech companies in Silicon Valley, where the lack of diversity is critical. Debates about diversity and the ways to transform recruitment and management to allow for greater inclusion of women and people from minorities are not new in Silicon Valley where the pool of engineers and marketers is far from representative of the population as a whole (fewer women, fewer African-Americans).

But this year, tech companies feel more accountable than ever before, in a context of intense backlash against them. Accused of fuelling a predatory form of “surveillance capitalism”, digital giants like Facebook and Google are also under attack for their responsibility in strengthening the “white supremacist” movements that played a role in the election of Donald Trump. In this electoral year in the US, tech leaders can’t afford to remain silent and do nothing.

Many people just talk the talk, but some really want to walk the talk

Given the strength of the anti-racist movements after Floyd’s death, many companies spoke out against racism. For the head of LinkedIn, “We are with our colleagues and the Black community”. Salesforce’s CEO said, “We are with the Black community against racism, violence, and hate.

As for Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, he made a long declaration, “The events of the past few weeks reflect deep structural challenges. We’ll work closely with our Black community to develop initiatives and product ideas that support long-term solutions—and we’ll keep you updated. As part of this effort, we welcome your ideas on how to use our products and technology to improve access and opportunity.

LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky then made an address: “Many of you shared the hardest part was realizing that this company we love and hold to such a high standard still has a lot of work to do to educate ourselves and our colleagues on how to create a culture that is truly anti-racist,” Roslansky wrote. “We will do that work.

In the world of venture capital, where the future of Silicon Valley startups (and tomorrow’s giants) is at stake, several people decided to take concrete action. For example, investor Jason Lemkin committed to meeting only Black founders in June. The famous firm Andreessen Horowitz set up a new program to support Black and Latino founders, who are particularly under-represented in startups.

What was probably the most spectacular action was that of Alexis Ohanian, founder of Reddit and husband to Serena Williams, who decided to withdraw from the platform’s board of directors so a Black person would be appointed to the board in his place. “Not an easy decision” …“I believe resignation can actually be an act of leadership from people in power right now,” Ohanian said in his announcement. “To everyone fighting to fix our broken nation: do not stop.

Silicon Valley has a diversity problem

Diversity figures are alarming in the tech world. Many people see this lack of diversity in tech firms as an urgent problem to tackle. For example, at Google, 73.3% of leadership positions are held by men and 66% by white people… and only 2.6% of these positions are held by Blacks and 3.7% by Latinos. The figures are comparable in other digital giants.

At least now this lack of diversity is measurable and objectifiable. For years, these companies resisted requests to release their workforce diversity data. Until then, the criticism leveled at the “whiteness” and “sexism” of these companies could be said to be “subjective”. The possibility of collecting and releasing objective data on diversity (gender, ethnicity, age, etc.) makes it possible to set goals and be accountable in a way that is not possible without the data.

In recent years, the pressure for more transparency in human resources data has become irresistible. Today the figures are public in most tech firms. Silicon Valley is undeniably more male, whiter, and more Asian than the US population as a whole. In 2014, Google led the way by publishing the company’s diversity statistics for the first time, which was a turning point in Silicon Valley diversity policy. The same year, Google announced that $150 million would be spent on diversity programs.

However although the reality of this lack of diversity is now measurable and undeniable, the numbers have not changed much since the mid-2010s. There has been little progress in human resources, even in the companies most determined to make progress, like Pinterest. And the multiple harmful consequences of the problem are now being denounced: for example, artificial intelligence tools reproduce the lack of diversity of those who design them. (Facial recognition is accused of perpetuating racist bias).

A turning point?

Are today’s announcements and promises just empty words? One could think so. After all, many promises have been made for years now with little impact on diversity. But there is reason to believe that things could actually start changing this year like never before. Indeed, for most tech companies, it’s no longer about making diversity a separate (“nice to have”) objective, but it’s become necessary to make diversity central to the company’s strategy.

Three phenomena (the three Ps) are now intersecting, and pushing firms to more radical actions:

  • Product: The design of machine learning algorithms, AI tools, and all applications is based on biased data. To improve your product (see the example of facial recognition software mentioned above), you must make it less “racist”, i.e. have more diversity among your engineers, and more diversity in the data used to design the products.

  • People: Diversity in HR will be increasingly critical at a time when access to talent is exceedingly limited. Trump has just suspended all immigration visas for skilled workers Silicon Valley depends on (one in two employees in tech companies was not born in the US). So these companies will have to get creative and find talent elsewhere, in local, diverse communities (among Blacks and Hispanics).

  • Politics: 2020 is a turning point with elections, a pandemic, an economic crisis, demonstrations against racism, and police violence. Racism is at the heart of all debates. At the same time, tech companies (notably Facebook) are accused of complicity with Trump. To restore their image in this time of unprecedented backlash, they must do more than just make empty promises.