Timnit Gebru, Google and lessons from an evolving story
We’ve been closely following the story of Timnit Gebru and her sacking in December from Google Research. As their ethical AI co-lead, Gebru left Google over a protracted disagreement on the release of a research paper she had co-authored, that examines a line of AI technology Google appears to be deeply invested in.
Since leaving Google, the story has been played out publicly by Gebru on Twitter, who has criticised Google, her direct bosses Jeff Dean and HR for their behaviour, both whilst in position and in relation to her sacking.
In solidarity with Gebru — who has consistently said she was sacked whilst on holiday — over 2,500 Google employees and thousands more academics have signed a petition backing her version of events: that she did not resign but was sacked — a narrative Google continues to dispute.
Whilst it might be considered a bold move to publicly @ her former boss Jeff Dean and reveal her side of the story, Gebru’s insights and criticisms of Google are a lesson in uncomfortable yet necessary reading.
Timnit Gebru is only one of a handful of Black women at Google and at the top of her field in AI ethics and research worldwide: her speaking out about her experiences, gives us all an opportunity to get her unique perspective on what it’s like to work at one of the most powerful tech companies on the planet, as a person of colour and a woman.
Specifically Gebru has highlighted her vilification at speaking out about issues related to black people, women and marginalisation and pointing out that Google’s diversity efforts “don’t do anything”.
As part of our agenda, Ada’s List advocates women in tech to speak out, have the hard conversations and challenge the status quo — because a more equitable tech industry benefits everyone.
But in kind, we always expect there to be someone listening.
Gebru comments that whilst working at Google she borrowed a phrase from disability advocates: nothing about us without us.
The consideration being, if you’re having conversations about diversity and developing diversity initiatives, but are doing so without the people in the room who these initiatives are designed to affect, then it’s unrealistic to expect these initiatives to succeed.
However, it also requires leaders to recognise that if conversations are NOT being had, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the diversity initiatives and policies in place, are functioning as well as you might think.
It may be that people do not feel secure, safe or confident enough in their workplace environment to point out that initiatives are not working, or that they do not feel supported enough to speak out about discriminatory treatment.
So as a person in a position of power and influence, who is committed to supporting teams, colleagues and your organisation to be more diverse, ask yourself: if you can’t hear anything, is it because you’re not listening or because people aren’t talking?