Fixing Airbnb’s Discrimination Problem Is Harder Than It Seems

Jul 12, 2016

Airbnb is finding out that fixing discrimination is a really long and difficult road.

The home-sharing company has come under fire in the last few weeks over the racism and discrimination against some of its customers while they used the service. Even a hashtag—#AirbnbWhileBlack—emerged on social media amid the flood of conversations about the topic.

Of course, Airbnb quickly denounced racism in public statements and apologies. During its annual engineering conference in San Francisco, co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky declared that the company had started a 90-day review of its entire service and that, "We have zero tolerance for any discrimination."

Now, more than a month later, the company doesn't seem to have any new answers. Chesky and Airbnb chief of business and legal affairs, Belinda Johnson, took the stage at Fortune's Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, Colo. on Tuesday and offered much of the same statements: That Airbnb has no tolerance for discrimination, that it's reviewing its design, and is focused on making its company as diverse as possible.

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In fairness, Airbnb's challenge is incredibly difficult. Its service asks people to open their home to strangers and to trust that it's going to be okay. And it will never be able to eradicate the discrimination that exists in our society.

But Kimberly Bryant, founder of Black Girls Code, an non-profit that organizes a variety of programs to teach coding to girls of color, thinks there's more it can do.

"I wonder, do you not recognize that some of the issues in the design of the product, as is, is being driven by the fact that it’s not inclusive design," she told the executives during a question and answer period after the panel. "Perhaps [it's] because there’s only 2% black people that work at Airbnb, there’s only 3% of Hispanics that are part of the Airbnb community and if we go down further into the tech ranks it’s like 1%." (Check out Airbnb's workforce diversity report here.)

She continued: "So while I appreciate the redesign efforts, I really would challenge you to look at what are the employee makeups at your companies and how can you do more to hire engineers, to hire designers that would be able to look at your product from this lens."

Airbnb, which recently hired its first diversity chief after a half-year-long search, agrees. "There’s no question this is a problem in tech, this is a problem at Airbnb," Chesky conceded.

The company is still at the beginning of its efforts to fix all this, so whether it succeeds remains to be seen. But it's undoubtedly turning out to be a complicated and multi-layered challenge.

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