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Google workers mobilize against firing of top Black female executive

The firing follows a series of internal battles about how the tech company handles diversity and inclusion.
Image: Timnit Gebru
Timnit Gebru, then a leader of Google’s Ethical Artificial Intelligence Team, at a technology conference in San Francisco in 2018.Kimberly White / Getty Images for TechCrunch file

Nearly 800 Google employees have joined a solidarity campaign in support of one of the company’s top female executives, a known advocate for diversity in the industry who said she was fired after what her boss described as a dispute over a research paper.

The executive, Timnit Gebru, technical co-lead of Google’s Ethical Artificial Intelligence Team, announced on Twitter late Wednesday that she had been fired after sending an email to co-workers stating that the company’s leadership had forced her to retract a paper focusing on ethical problems involving the kind of artificial intelligence systems used to understand human language, including one that powers Google’s search engine.

The email also detailed her frustration with the company’s efforts to create a more inclusive workspace. She said that she feels “constantly dehumanized” at Google.

Google would not provide comment on Gebru’s firing, but pointed to an email from Google’s head of research, Jeff Dean, to employees, published by the technology newsletter Platformer, in which he said that Gebru had resigned.

The #ISupportTimnit campaign, started by Google workers and posted on Medium, accuses Google of “unprecedented research censorship” and calls for transparency over why the paper was rejected and a commitment from the company to “research integrity and academic freedom.”

Gebru also was known for raising concerns about how Google handled diversity issues. Gebru is a co-founder of Black in AI, an organization dedicated to increasing the number of Black researchers in artificial intelligence. She also co-wrote a high-profile study on racial bias in facial recognition technology, which found that the error rates for leading facial recognition systems were far higher when identifying people with darker skin.

“Instead of being embraced by Google as an exceptionally talented and prolific contributor, Dr. Gebru has faced defensiveness, racism, gaslighting, research censorship, and now a retaliatory firing,” says the statement of solidarity.

The campaign invites people from academia, civil society groups and industry to add their names to the solidarity statement. Within 30 minutes of going live Thursday afternoon, the letter amassed over 100 signatures from Google employees alone.

By Friday morning, there were signatures from 794 Google employees and 1,136 academic industry and civil society supporters.

Broader problems

Gebru’s announcement fanned the flames of frustration among some employees at Google, concerned that the company has spent years talking about its commitment to diversity and inclusion, while making only incremental progress in hiring more women, Black and Latino employees to its workforce, according to the company’s own annual diversity reports.

Over the last two years, the company has cut some diversity training programs and staff members dedicated to improving diversity at the company, according to current and former employees who spoke to NBC News in May. At the time, Google said it had changed its approach to training but denied its diversity work was reduced.

The technology industry — and the field of artificial intelligence in particular — has long been known for being dominated by white men. A 2019 study by the AI Now Institute at New York University found that only 10 percent of AI researchers at Google were women. At Facebook, only 15 percent of AI researchers were women. At Google, Black women represent only 0.7 percent of its technical workforce, according to the company’s 2020 diversity report.

Gebru publicly shared her frustrations with the company with regards to diversity. In the email, sent last week to an internal employee group called Google Brain Women and Allies, she noted that Google’s research division was only 14 percent female in 2020.

“There is no incentive to hire 39 percent women: Your life gets worse when you start advocating for underrepresented people,” Gebru wrote. “You start making the other leaders upset when they don’t want to give you good ratings during calibration.”

She characterized the company’s latest decision to retract the paper, which was submitted to an academic conference, as an example of “silencing marginalized voices.”

Dean said in the email circulated to Google employees that Gebru’s research did not “meet the bar for publication” and that after it was rejected, she wrote an email requiring a number of conditions to be met to continue working at Google, including revealing the identities of people who had provided feedback about her research, as well as the feedback provided.

“Timnit wrote that if we didn’t meet these demands, she would leave Google and work on an end date. We accept and respect her decision to resign from Google,” said Dean, adding that “we all genuinely share Timnit’s passion to make AI more equitable and inclusive.”

Gebru did not respond to a request by NBC News for comment. But Gebru posted on Twitter Wednesday: ”Apparently my manager’s manager sent an email [to] my direct reports saying she accepted my resignation. I hadn’t resigned -- I had asked for simple conditions first and said I would respond when I’m back from vacation. But I guess she decided for me.”

Rallying cry

In addition to launching a solidarity campaign, some of Gebru’s Google colleagues publicly expressed their shock and anger about Gebru’s exit on Twitter.

Alex Hanna, a sociologist who works in Google’s Ethical AI team and was managed by Gebru, tweeted that Gebru was receiving “disrespect and straight-up gaslighting” from the company.

“Google could be one of the research leaders on the social implications of AI and tech. But they're choosing to go the other way,” she wrote on Wednesday evening.

Dylan Baker, also on the Ethical AI team, added: “Even before she was my manager, Timnit fought for me and supported me tirelessly and unequivocally. Her team dynamic has the most psychological safety, motivation, support and autonomy I’ve ever had in a work environment. I’m livid.”

The broader community of artificial intelligence ethics researchers also expressed outrage, pointing to the fact that Gebru was one of the few Black women who held a position of leadership in her field.

“It seems like we are seeing a pattern in which people who take seriously the job of upholding diversity and equity are pushed out of Google because Google doesn’t actually want that work to be effective,” said Meredith Whittaker, former Google research scientist and co-founder of the AI Now Institute, which researches the social implications of artificial intelligence.

On the same day Gebru announced she was fired, the National Labor Relations Board said that Google violated labor law last year when it fired two workers, Kathryn Spires and Laurence Berland, involved in labor organization efforts. Other employees and labor organizers at Google who were fired last year also filed complaints to the NLRB. But their terminations were not found to be unlawful.

“We’re confident in our decision and legal position,” Google said in a statement. “Actions undertaken by the employees at issue were a serious violation of our policies and an unacceptable breach of a trusted responsibility.”

"When a cis-white man gives critical feedback of the diversity and inclusion programs at Google and expresses how they need to change to be effective, it becomes grounds for promotion and is seen as a display of leadership,” Berland said about Gebru’s departure. “When a Black woman who is one of the top researchers in her field does the exact same thing, it’s treated as inappropriate and she gets fired.”