House Democrats press Google over report of scaled-back diversity efforts

April Glaser
Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaks during signing ceremony committing Google to help expand information technology education at El Centro College in Dallas, Texas, October 3, 2019.
Brandon Wade | Reuters

Ten House Democrats sent a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai on Monday demanding answers about an NBC News investigation alleging that Google has significantly decreased its diversity and inclusion initiatives since 2018, because of what sources said was a fear of being perceived as biased against conservatives.

The letter, spearheaded by Rep. Robin Kelly of Illinois, includes a list of questions about what diversity and inclusion workforce training programs Google has cut, what type of diversity training is offered to new hires and how Google is working to build diversity programs for its global workforce.

Google denied having cut its diversity and inclusion initiatives.

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"Any suggestion that we have scaled back or cut our diversity efforts is entirely false," a Google spokesperson said. "Diversity, equity, and inclusion remains a company wide commitment and our programs are continuing to scale up."

The other nine House Democrats who signed the letter were Reps. Yvette Clarke of New York; Andre Carson of Indiana; Mike Quigley of Illinois; Kathy Castor of Florida; Emanuel Cleaver of Michigan; Joyce Beatty of Ohio; Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey; Jan Schakowsky of Illinois; and Hank Johnson of Georgia.

"The tech sector and Google's challenges with diversity are no secret. It's disappointing to see a leader in the sector walking back their commitments to diversity and their employees," Kelly, chair of the House Tech Accountability Caucus, said in a statement.

"This new reporting has prompted a number of important questions that we outline in this letter. I look forward to engaging with Google at the highest-level to ensure they remain committed to promoting a diverse and inclusive corporate culture," she said.

Last week, NBC News reported that Google has cut multiple diversity and inclusion programs and the teams responsible for those programs had been reduced in size, according to six former and current employees. Seven former and current employees across a range of teams and roles at Google all said they believed the company reduced its diversity and inclusion work to shield the company from backlash from conservatives.

"It is no secret that companies across Silicon Valley and the tech sector have struggled to increase diversity, and Google is no exception," the representatives wrote.

"It is troublesome to hear that Google, an industry leader, plans to scale back efforts to address their lack of diversity when you have previously stated a corporate commitment to improve in this very area," they said.

Google denied that it had decreased its diversity and inclusion work. Melonie Parker, Google's chief diversity officer, said the company isn't scaling back its internal diversity programs, but rather "maturing our programs to make sure we're building our capability."

The company's alleged reductions to its diversity and inclusion initiatives included making it harder to talk about diversity, multiple sources told NBC News.

Google denied the company has limited conversations about diversity internally and pointed to the company's diversity report, which uses the word diversity in its title.

One source, a former Google employee who asked not to be named because she is not permitted to speak with the press about her former employer, recalled that her team, which focused on artificial intelligence research at Google, was told in 2018 that they would no longer receive updates about the team's progress on diversity. She was told by a research director that "conversations about diversity could become a liability" at the company, she said.

The House members specifically asked in their letter if employees working in artificial intelligence undergo additional bias training.

Artificial intelligence products have long been criticized by academics and researchers for being programmed in ways that perpetuate systemic racism, like software used in criminal justice systems to help determine sentencing that was found to be biased against black people.

Google has struggled with race in its AI systems, too, like in 2015 when the company's photo sorting software accidentally mislabeled black people as "gorillas." The company has also been criticized for its popular search product, which in 2016 received media attention for surfacing mugshots when searching for "three back teenagers." Google, however, provided anodyne photos of white teenagers with sports gear when "three white teenagers" was put in the search field.