Facebook and Google preach racial equality. But they lack it on their leadership teams

Amid the ongoing protests, Google and Facebook stood up last week for racial equality and promised millions of dollars to groups trying to make that goal a reality. But inside the companies, the racial inequity is stark: Few black people are among their top executives. 

Last year, black people made up 3% of Facebook’s senior leadership, an increase of one percentage point over 2018. During the same year, they represented 2.6% of Google’s leadership, unchanged from the year prior.

In terms of its board, at Facebook, two of its nine members are black. And at Alphabet, Google’s parent, two of its 11 members are black.

“Their data speaks for itself,” said Leslie Miley, a former Google engineering leader who is black. “The numbers are fairly consistent with where they were in 2016…and if that’s not a failure, I don’t know what is.”

Google and Facebook are two of the largest global tech companies, collectively employing more than 160,000 people worldwide. And the lack of black people and people of color within their leadership and lower ranks mirrors the disparity across the entire tech industry. For the past several years, Google and Facebook have become more transparent about how many people of color and women it employs, and every year, they have promised to do better. But any improvements have been minor.

Last year at both companies, white men and women filled a majority of leadership and board positions. They accounted for 65% of senior leaders at Facebook and 66% at Google. 

Asked about the lack of diversity of its leadership team, Facebook said in a statement, “We remain committed to building a more diverse workforce to help us build better products, make better decisions, and create a better culture.”

Google declined to comment on the matter, but in a note to employees on Wednesday, Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai said, “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.”

Former employees have publicly called out Google and Facebook for how they have treated black employees, describing incidents when they were not only marginalized but directly discriminated against by their managers or other employees. 

Following protests fueled by the death of George Floyd, a black Minneapolis resident who died after a white police officer kneeled on his neck, Google committed $12 million to organizations working to improve racial equity while Facebook promised $10 million. Both CEOs also publicly stated that they stand with the black community.

Before the recent demonstrations, Facebook had created a number of partnerships and programs aimed at improving diversity. And last year, the company committed to shift hiring so that within the next five years, half of its workers are women, people of color, people with disabilities, and veterans. 

Meanwhile, Google has tried to eliminate bias in its job postings, expanded programs aimed at retaining workers from underrepresented groups, and deepened partnerships with organizations that serve underrepresented communities.  

But critics say the efforts by Google and Facebook aren’t enough. They want the companies to do more to promote and hire blacks and other people of color. They also want Google and Facebook to change policies that unfairly discriminate against people of color like performance reviews that often scrutinize black individuals more harshly than white counterparts. The companies can do better to create an environment in which all people feel valued and included, critics said, and they should increase funding for internal diversity leaders and efforts. The efforts would result in not only more black leaders but a better environment for black employees, and top executives should be held accountable for change or the lack thereof, critics urge.

“The fact of the matter is if it’s not doing better, you’re not doing your job,” Miley said, referring to CEOs. “Maybe it’s time for you to move on.”

Kellie McElhaney, founding director of the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership at the University of California at Berkeley, said it’s no longer acceptable for the two companies to address their lack of diversity solely by offering long-term strategies, especially when Facebook and Google already employ potential black leaders. Instead, the companies should take swift action to remedy years of inequity under their own roofs, she said.

“We’ve given a long enough period for companies to collect the data, to say they have a problem, to say they have solutions,” McElhaney said. “The grace period is up.”

Employees at both companies have long criticized the lack of diversity. Mark Luckie, a former Facebook engineer, aired his grievances in a memo to colleagues two years ago about Facebook’s failures that he later shared in a public post.

In the memo, he said inside some of Facebook’s buildings “there are more Black Lives Matter posters than there are actual black people.” He also described racial discrimination at the company.

“Too many black employees can recount stories of being aggressively accosted by campus security beyond what was necessary,” he wrote. “At least two or three times a day, every day, a colleague at MPK [Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park] will look directly at me and tap or hold their wallet or shove their hands down their pocket to clutch it tightly until I pass.”

Miley said he was assaulted twice within six months while working at Google. He said both times other Google employees, who didn’t see his employee badge, tried to keep him from entering the campus. “That someone felt they could physically restrain me at work…that’s the same type of attitude that caused those three men to hunt down Ahmaud Arbery and murder him,” he said, referring to black Georgia jogger who died after three white men ambushed and shot him. “Google is microcosm of what’s happening in society.”

The lack of black people in leadership was particularly apparent during Facebook’s internal all-hands meeting on Wednesday. An employee asked CEO Mark Zuckerberg how many black leaders he consulted before making the controversial decision to leave President Trump’s recent inflammatory comments about the Minneapolis protests on the service. Zuckerberg said he consulted with a small circle of advisers, and of those he listed only one was black, according to Vox’s transcript of the meeting. He said he also relied on information from Facebook’s policy team, some of whose members are black.

“If the only [black] person in that room was the chief diversity officer, that is highly troublesome,” McElhaney said, suggesting that chief diversity officers often provide an essential voice but rarely get the amount of executive support they need.

Both companies’ shareholders, whose voting power is controlled by the companies’ founders, also recently rejected several proposals meant to improve diversity and increase accountability, citing policies and people already in place to address the matters. Among failed proposals at Alphabet’s shareholder meeting on Wednesday was a request that the company report data on how it’s improving diversity within its leadership ranks and how executive compensation is tied to those measures. At Facebook, shareholders rejected a proposal to report on civil and human rights risks.

Miley said companies have an opportunity to make real change in response to the current movement. But he says far too many times companies’ focus on racial equity and justice has waned once public outrage dies down.

“This time will pass, this story will pass, and we as people of color will be left,” he said. “I just want to see something different.”

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