Google is vast and unknowable, shrouded in Silicon Valley's plasticine corporate fog, yet intensely personal, waiting for us from the moment we open our laptops and phones. It's this combination of extremes which can cause ordinary users to sometimes forget that Google is more than an endless field of server racks and a spinning beachball on our computer screens: it is comprised of people.
Google recently pulled back the curtain on that workforce, releasing a demographic breakdown of its U.S. employees with data from 2015. The results were stunning, and perhaps frustratingly predictable, depicting a workforce overwhelmingly white and male. In fact, just 2% of Google employees in the United States were black—a figure that dropped to a single percentage point when filtered for those working solely on the technical side of the company.
That Silicon Valley struggles with diversity and minority representation is nothing new. And Google, as an industry leader, has taken significant strides in that respect, even instituting the Black Googler Network, a team of black Google employees who spend 20% of their time focusing on issues of diversity and inclusion.
For those committed to expanding diversity in the tech sector, hearing the voices of those who know what it's like to be in the minority at a place like Google is a good place to start. A number of black employees took to question-and-answer site Quora to share their personal stories.
"Speaking for myself," writes Anthony Mays, who describes himself as a software engineer with the company, "working at Google has been both the most rewarding and the most challenging career opportunity of my life for the past two years."
Mays praises the company's diversity efforts:
My team of 24 engineers represents about eight or nine different ethnicities and features three women. They are all really smart, personable people. I am constantly humbled to have the chance to work with them daily. They have been nothing but accepting of me as a person and engineer and have shared my passion for both advocating STEM and donating to charitable causes dear to my heart. I also have a great manager that has been very understanding and supportive of my journey while at Google.
He also credits the Black Googlers Network with being "an amazing employee resource group at Google," that has "really been empowered by Google to make the company a welcoming place for the black community specifically."
Nonetheless, in Mays' Irvine office:
It matters that I only see maybe one or two other black people that look like me and have a cultural background that's similar to mine, especially considering how I grew up. There's a loneliness that I feel sometimes because no matter how great the people I work with may be, there's still a gap of understanding that they don't have unless they've had the experience of living black in America.
Joel Johnson, who describes himself simply as a "former Googler," had a decidedly different experience:
They'd do things that were belittling, incriminating (made you appear biased or full of it), and insulting under the guise of "trying to make you feel included." As for general reactions from employees, most seemed indifferent to ethnicity.
Later, when asked if he thinks the low percentage of African American employees at Google is the company's fault, Johnson answers "I usually don't think it's the company's fault, but as the months went by at Google, I began to realize they very likely didn't care at all."
For Obi Elledge, a UX Content Strategist, Google's diversity efforts are put into stark relief when compared with the broader vibe of Silicon Valley, in which he feels classism and racism are a reality, regardless of the region's liberal reputation. He writes:
Thankfully, the culture on the Google campus is by far better (friendlier, warmer, more welcoming of diversity (of thought, of skill, of demographic…)) than that of the surrounding towns and cities. Though I'm still very much in a minority, I have black peers at work. They may not be on my team, or even in my department, but they are visible and, for the most part*, approachable. By contrast, my neighborhood and the semblance of a social existence outside of work contain precisely zero black faces. I had to get hired at Google to find black friends! I can't easily summarize how valuable it is to have associations with those who can relate to your experience.
For Robin Joseph, a Data Center Facilities Specialist for Google in Atlanta, the experience of being a black Google employee extended beyond the confines of the office. In a blog post about the company's Black Googlers Network, Joseph explains:
I serve as a CS First program evangelist, helping engage diverse students in computer science learning, and I’m a Diversity Ambassador advancing our diversity work in the data centers. One of my proudest moments was when I helped secure a Google grant for a robotics program at a local school—helping them scale the project from 10 students to 150!
While many of these responses were positive, Google itself recognizes it's still plagued by a lack of diversity. Upon the release of their 2015 report, the company explained, “We're still not where we want to be when it comes to diversity. It is hard to address these kinds of challenges if you're not prepared to discuss them openly, and with the facts."
Which doesn't mean there hasn't been progress.
"I feel that there’s a heightened sense of awareness, particularly in the last two to three years," Yolanda Mangolini, Google's director of diversity and inclusion, told The Root in September of that same year. " People pay attention to who’s onstage. Managers will observe that, ‘Hey, there are five white dudes [onstage],’ and make things more diverse."