How Google is trying to rid itself of secret sexism

Women need to be fully in the picture.
Women need to be fully in the picture.
Image: REUTERS/Christian Hartmann
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In the wake of releasing not-so-great diversity data a few months ago (one in a parade of tech companies showing similarly abysmal numbers), Google has focused publicly on its efforts to combat the unconscious bias that can lead to a homogeneity of ideas and people in the workplace, and inhibit innovation.

Unconscious bias is the idea that everyone makes judgments they’re not aware of, and that those can create and perpetuate a prejudicial work environment, in which men are hired and promoted over women and people of color. Today, Google released a blog post with some specific examples of how its efforts to combat bias go beyond education and data collection.

Test people for it

Google says more than 26,000 employees have taken part in a workshop that director of people analytics Brian Welle developed, which involves a 90-minute lecture to help people come face to face with their unconscious biases. Here’s a version of it linked from the blog post:

During the lecture, Welle has attendees participate in an Implicit Association Test, which measures how one associates concepts, such as ”woman and science” and “man and liberal arts.” In the test you must correctly identify the category for a word.  For example, the word “engineering” belongs with the category “science.” But people make that connection more quickly when science is paired with the word “man” than they do when it’s paired with “woman.” Seeing the test results, or even the process of taking the test, can help people realize their biases.

Check who is being honored on the walls and doors

The company realized last year that very few conference rooms were named after female scientists, compared to the dozens named after men. ”Was this our vision for the future?” the blog post asks “No. So we changed Ferdinand von Zeppelin to Florence Nightingale—along with many others—to create more balanced representation.”

When you see bias, call it out—loudly

Google provided this example to the New York Times:

[I]n an all-company presentation, an interviewer asked a male and female manager who had recently begun sharing an office, “Which one of you does the dishes?” The strange, sexist undertone of the question was immediately seized upon by a senior executive in the crowd, who yelled, “Unconscious bias!”

Of course, these are but a few examples, and Google has thousands of employees. It remains to be seen whether the pervasive culture of gender bias in Silicon Valley is truly being disrupted.