Black Tech Employees Rebel Against ‘Diversity Theater’

Companies pledged money and support for people of color. But some say they still face a hostile work environment for speaking out or simply doing their jobs. 

In each of the past seven years, major tech companies have released diversity reports, charting the number of women and people of color they employ. The numbers are reported to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but companies have dedicated more and more resources to publicly displaying their commitments to diversity. The displays are impressive. The results are not.

These companies spend millions on targeted outreach and strategic partnerships, but the results change little from year to year. Between 2014 and 2020, for example, the share of Black and Latinx tech workers at Facebook each increased by less than 2 percentage points.

It seemed the same story year after year. Until 2020.

The nationwide reckoning on race and racism last year exposed what many tasked with diversity work have privately discussed for years: that Silicon Valley’s own diversity and recruitment structures can hinder the work of opening doors to new people from different backgrounds with new ideas.

Call it “diversity theater”: the many PR rituals and bureaucracies obscuring the line between the value of diversity and how companies actually treat their marginalized employees trying to make a change.

Consider the annual ritual of the diversity reports themselves. When companies issue statements after missing diversity goals, the apology usually comes from a chief diversity officer—often one of the few nonwhite executives at the company in the first place.

“We aren’t where we’d like to be,” Facebook’s chief diversity officer, Maxine Williams, wrote in 2017. “We continue to have challenges,” she wrote the next year. In 2018, she was one of only nine Black females among Facebook’s top 1,053 executives. “We must continue our work,” wrote Melonie Parker, Google’s head of diversity, in 2019. Google listed only five Black females among its top 357 officers in 2018, the most recent numbers available.

Fighting for Internal Change

Current and former tech workers, all people of color, tell WIRED how diversity theater provides cover for actions by superiors that they consider hypocritical. They argue for new means for measuring progress and outline steps for longer lasting, structural change.

Last summer, tech companies including Amazon, Google, and Pinterest joined a corporate chorus of support for Black Lives Matter in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing. As companies set new diversity goals and pledged millions in support for nonprofits, two Black women came forward with their own experiences in tech. Aerica Shimizu Banks and Ifeoma Ozoma tweeted that they were underpaid, threatened, and harassed by colleagues at Pinterest, even as the company tweeted support for Black Lives Matter.

Banks worked on the public policy team for about a year, beginning in 2019. At first, she says, her manager lauded her for her policy and equity work. Things shifted in December 2019, she says, when she questioned how Pinterest treated contract catering and janitorial workers. She spoke out against a company decision not to provide boosted holiday pay for contractors.

In prior years, Pinterest had given these contractors the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day off and paid them for the entire week. In December 2019, the company announced a change: Contractors would still have the week off, but would be paid only for the two holidays. In emails reviewed by WIRED, one Pinterest manager said the company would be “offering shifts for deep cleaning for those who do not have enough vacation to cover rent/needs.”

Once news of the contract decision broke, Banks flagged it to managers, writing in emails that the decision seemed “not aligned with a company [focused on] social impact.”

Executives eventually reversed the decision not to pay contractors, but Banks said her manager criticized her advocacy in her performance review, taking issue with Banks’ tone, and the company’s general counsel specified that the change had nothing to do with her. In the evaluation, reviewed by WIRED, the manager said Banks should improve how “she assesses and presents issues internally,” saying that during the contractor pay dispute she “framed the issue in a way that suggested there was only one reasonable option.”

Banks says she felt blindsided. Her job was to advocate for equity and make recommendations around fairness. Shouldn’t that apply to the low-wage workers serving lunch and cleaning the offices at the company as well?

“Oh, here’s our diversity champion,” she says, describing how she felt tokenized by the company. “Here’s our expert in this area. Here’s our figurehead. But we don’t actually want her to do the work we’ve hired her to do.”

The other Black woman on the three-member policy team tells WIRED she faced similar treatment. Ifeoma Ozoma says that even as Pinterest made a show of spotlighting Black creators on the platform, it marginalized her and Banks. She described the company’s Black Lives Matter statement as “a moment of violent hypocrisy.”

In December 2019, Pinterest announced it would no longer promote weddings or other events held at plantations. Former slave plantations in the American south are popular wedding venues, but many people find the sites offensive. When the civil rights group Color of Change petitioned Pinterest to reconsider promoting the content, Ozoma worked with organizers at the group to persuade the company to stop accepting ads from these venues. Users searching terms like “plantation wedding” would receive a message noting the content violates Pinterest’s terms of service.

The press coverage surrounding the change was resoundingly positive. Soon, other platforms followed suit. Ozoma expected leadership would laud her for leading the change. But her manager took issue with her handling of the incident, writing in her performance review that Ozoma should have provided more context to the other policy managers, including the “pros/cons” of the decision. As a consequence, the review reads, Ozoma’s team lacked “all the information they might need to make an informed choice.”

Speaking to WIRED, Ozoma says she found it absurd to have to list the “pros” of plantation events. She says the incident highlighted a disconnect between how companies publicly and privately address calls for equity and fairness.

“Way before I spoke out publicly I was speaking up internally, and I was punished for it,” she says.

Both women filed complaints with California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing. They later settled with Pinterest for a confidential amount. In December, a group of shareholders filed suit against Pinterest, saying its mistreatment of Banks and Ozoma damaged the company’s public image.

A Pinterest spokesperson didn’t respond to the specifics of Ozoma’s and Banks’ accounts, but said in a statement to WIRED, “Pinterest is fully committed to advancing our culture and creating an environment that’s diverse, equitable, and inclusive for everyone. From revamping our unconscious bias training, working to improve representation in our workforce, and continuing to ensure the content on Pinterest is inclusive and representative, culture is a top priority.”

A Type of ‘Double-Consciousness’

Tech workers and recruiters WIRED contacted spoke of a type of double-consciousness: As part of their jobs they work to identify and ameliorate racial trauma (for example, through recruiting more people of color or changing company culture through unconscious bias training), all while being subjected to racial trauma. This was further heightened last summer, as protest footage and Floyd’s last moments looped endlessly on social media and the evening news.

“It’s an issue of unpaid labor,” says Rhonda Allen, CEO of /dev/color, a nonprofit that offers development and networking opportunities for Black software engineers. “The additional processing of individual and collective trauma in order to help our companies do better and better, we have to recognize that as the work that it is,” she says.

To foster diversity and support for workers, tech companies formed employee resource groups. These are company-sponsored semiformal groups of employees. Companies have ERGs for women, people of color, parents, and so on. But, Ozoma notes, these ERGs can provide cover for hypocritical behavior. Two of the managers who she says mistreated her at Pinterest sponsored ERGs for minority employees.

“At the same time as they’re harming folks in marginalized communities, they’re whitewashing their reputations within the same companies,” Ozoma said.

Surviving in this kind of environment is difficult, explains Oscar Veneszee Jr., a Navy veteran and recruiter for Facebook. He says that, in his experience, people of color at tech companies feel pressured to inure themselves to their own mistreatment in service to the company.

“When you talk about imposter syndrome, well yeah. I am an imposter,” he says. Because I show up every day [as] someone else. And the better I can become at being someone else, the better I’ll thrive at this company.”

Last June, Veneszee and two other Black employees filed a complaint with the EEOC alleging the social network doesn’t give Black workers equal opportunity to advance. He says he routinely won praise from managers but was never formally rated better than “meets expectations” and was never promoted.

“There may be Black Lives Matter posters on Facebook’s walls, but Black workers don’t see that phrase reflecting how they are treated in Facebook’s own workplace,” their complaint reads. The case is pending. 

“We’re focused on creating a more diverse and inclusive workplace, advancing racial justice, and holding ourselves accountable,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. Since last summer, the company has added diversity and inclusion goals to senior leaders’ performance reviews and changed how employees report discrimination, microaggressions and policy violations, among other changes.

“I think corporate America is scared,” said Peter Romer-Friedman, Veneszee’s attorney. “We’re really seeing Black professionals who have done everything right to advance themselves in their careers and their education, but they see they’re up against a cinder block ceiling.”

Romer-Friedman said he’s seeing more Black workers, including professionals in tech, taking legal action to challenge discrimination. “They’re tired of being second-class citizens in the workplace,” he says.

The dynamic recurred in December, when Timnit Gebru, a well-known artificial intelligence researcher, left Google; she says she was fired. Gebru studied the ethical consequences of AI and also contributed to diversity efforts at Google. Shortly before leaving the company, she wrote an open letter to an internal listserv for women on Google’s AI team, voicing her frustrations and echoing the concerns of Banks, Ozoma, and Veneszee.

“Your life gets worse when you advocate for underrepresented people,” the letter read.

An Empty Feeling

Diversity theater creates a sense of dissonance: Workers have to represent the company publicly while feeling victimized by it privately; they must identify shortcomings but are punished for acting on them. Gebru’s letter aired a number of privately held criticisms. Since her departure, calls at Google have grown for structural changes and a push for a new approach to diversity and inclusion that is worker-led and longer lasting.

Raksha Muthukumar has worked at Google as a software engineer for two years. She quickly joined the queer pride ERG and mentored high school students on the Google campus. But she says the experience left her “feeling a bit empty.”

Many people of color in tech want to do progressive work around marginalized groups. But the companies decide what are the acceptable and unacceptable ways to do it. For Muthukumar, Gebru’s letter mirrored her own frustration of “trying to do good but being trapped by the confines of the corporation.”

In the aftermath of the Floyd protests, Muthukumar says, Google leadership encouraged workers to share their experiences and resources on ways to help. But when Muthukumar circulated GoFundMe links, she was reprimanded by HR. One of the GoFundMe links included derogatory messages about police, and a coworker complained. The incident confused her: How can anyone engage with the realities of racism and the Floyd murder but ignore the social frustration toward law enforcement?

Muthukumar says it felt like there was some invisible line between acceptable and unacceptable ways to pair her job with activist endeavors, and the company decided when it’d been crossed. She later joined hundreds of other Googlers to create the Alphabet Workers Union.

“It’s part of the tactics to scare people,” says Charles Shaw, a Google engineer and vice chair of the Alphabet Workers Union. “If you don’t know when you’ve crossed the line, you’re afraid to ever get anywhere near that line, and you’re afraid to speak out at all.”

These incidents have Muthukumar wondering about the value of encouraging other people of color to come to Google. “If Google is doing a bunch of bad work, is it really better if I get a whole bunch of more queer women of color working here with me?” she asks.

Google has said Gebru resigned. In response to the formation of AWU, Google sent a statement from Kara Silverstein, its director of people operations. “We’ve always worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace for our workforce. Of course our employees have protected labor rights that we support. But as we’ve always done, we’ll continue engaging directly with all our employees.”

AWU is pushing for changes beyond diversity, including a more transparent ethical review for product launches, more support for ERGs, and a ban on police and military contracts. This more expansive set of goals is in line with new approaches to equity and fairness in Silicon Valley.

“Let’s make this a 10- to 20- to 30-year commitment versus a flash-in-the-pan reactionary kind of thing,” says Sherrell Dorsey, founder and CEO of The Plug, a subscription-based news platform. Last year, Dorsey compiled a list of the financial promises that companies made in the aftermath of the Floyd murder.

Rather than one-time payments, she urges companies to rethink equity in terms of structural investments: support for fair housing, raising the minimum wage, and equal access to education. This, in turn, should lead to a shift in how advocates measure progress.

In Gebru’s letter, she suggested forgoing the traditional diversity, equity, and inclusion structure entirely and instead petitioning outside organizations, like the Congressional Black Caucus, for change. Banks, the former Pinterest worker, agrees that the time has come to look beyond tech when companies fail to keep their promises.

“Where is the accountability when it’s voluntary?” Banks asks. She says shareholders could play an important role in holding companies to their commitments. In December, for example, New York State’s comptroller, who helps manage the state’s pension funds, called for Amazon shareholders to vote on commissioning an independent audit of the company’s civil rights practices.

“That’s where regulation comes in. That’s where the lawsuits come in. That’s where the public criticism comes in, because we need to hold these folks accountable,” she says.

Workers also need the ability to speak freely about their experience. Ozoma, formerly at Pinterest, is now fighting for California’s Senate Bill 331, which would strengthen limitations on nondisclosure agreements. She hopes the bill will stop Silicon Valley’s ability to say one thing and do another.

“The same companies putting out Black Lives Matter statements [are] forcing people to sign NDAs where they can’t talk about the discrimination and harassment that they receive from those same people who are putting out the statements,” she says.

An earlier state law, passed at the height of the #MeToo era, protected workers who spoke out against sexual harassment, even if they signed NDA’s. But the law does not cover race-based harassment, meaning, as a Black woman Ozoma could discuss gender-based discrimination but not racism.

“Any accountability we want we have to demand,” Ozoma says. “If anything comes from 2020, I hope it’s radicalizing people such that they do everything they can to see the kind of change that they know would improve their workplace for the folks they care about.”

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