Why Google voluntarily released dismal diversity numbers

May 29, 2014, 8:05 PM UTC

It’s not often that a Fortune 500 company will voluntarily release information that could make the firm look bad. On Wednesday, Google did just that. Sort of.

For the first time, the Silicon Valley tech giant released data on the diversity of its workforce. To many outside the technology industry, it isn’t pretty. Roughly 30% of Google (GOOG) employees worldwide are women, and blacks and Hispanics comprise just 5% of its U.S.-based staff. The data reveal that Google lags behind even other major tech firms in an industry known for a lack of diversity.

Until yesterday, Google executives kept this information a secret from the public, a practice shared by many of its tech industry peers. Large companies are legally required to disclose gender and race employee statics to the government, but it was revealed by the San Jose Mercury News in 2010 that tech companies including Google, Apple, and Facebook had convinced the Labor Department to the treat the information as “trade secrets” to bar it from public record.

Josh Harkinson, a reporter for Mother Jones, successfully filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain gender and race employee statistics for the top 10 tech firms. When Harkinson contacted Google for comment on his findings on May 14th, a company spokesperson responded to say that the company planned to make the stats public in June. Instead, Google released them a few days earlier — perhaps to make it appear to the general public that the company was proactively addressing the issue, rather than merely responding to criticism.

Indeed, Google’s Lazlo Block, a senior vice president for people operations, acknowledged to The New York Times that the company “is not where we want to be when it comes to diversity.”

That sentiment may be shared by the company’s peers, but none have said so publicly. When Harkinson contacted other top tech firms including Apple, Oracle, and Intel for comment on their diversity figures, most of the firms simply ignored the request. It was a “fairly pathetic response across the board,” Harkinson told Fortune. Google has been criticized in the past for its “man problem;” perhaps the company’s public relations officials felt pressure to take control of the narrative.

Despite the figures, the company’s sudden burst of transparency is welcome. The majority of  similarly sized tech firms don’t even release employee diversity data internally, let alone to the public, says Telle Whitney, CEO and president of the Anita Borg Institute, a California-based nonprofit promoting the recruitment of women in technology. Whitney says she wasn’t sure why Google decided to come forth openly with the data, but added that it is in line with some of the initiatives executives are undertaking to make recruitment more accessible for women and minorities.

“What you measure you will change,” Whitney said. “The whole world will be watching and expecting this to get better. This will put pressure on their peers to release their numbers. There is no question.”