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Economists: Google Garbles ‘Diversity’ Discussion

By Sharon Simonson

The ethnic and racial profile of Mountain View-based Google Inc.’s workforce is an irrelevant measure of the wrong metric premised on a weakly defined attribute, say the chair of the San Jose State University economics department and a labor-market expert at Cornell University.

The search engine, advertising and invention-driven company released a demographic profile on May 28 showing that 61 percent of its U.S. workforce is white and another 30 percent is Asian. Seventy percent of its workers worldwide are men.

“Google is not where it wants to be when it comes to diversity,” wrote Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations for Google, in a blog post where he released the data.

Bock does not indicate what demographic makeup would satisfy his company. He attributes Google’s “problem” in part to the lower percentage of women, Hispanics and blacks pursuing advanced education in computer science.

National Public Radio reported the story under the headline: “Google’s White-Male Heavy Staff Underlines Tech’s Diversity Problem.” The New York Times’ Clair Cain Miller concluded: “Silicon Valley remains a white man’s world.” The PBS Newshour said: “Google finally discloses its diversity record, and it’s not good.”

Kara Swisher, a well-known technology journalist, says the industry suffers from hidden racism and sexism, according to The Wall Street Journal. The Times and NPR compare Google’s workforce demographics to the nation at large, noting that 47 percent of the U.S. workforce are women, 80 percent are white, 12 percent are black and 5 percent are Asian.

But Cornell industrial and labor economist John Bishop and Lydia Ortega, chair of the San Jose State economics department, both say the discussion’s premise is wrong.

The idea that Google’s workforce or the tech industry’s workforce should mirror the U.S. working population is incorrect, Bishop said. Companies recruit talent based on their enterprise needs. Unlike a fast-food restaurant, for example, where jobs generally require basic and common workplace skills, the business future for Google and other technology companies depends on people with complex training and skills associated with advanced degrees in computer science and engineering.

These people are relatively rare, and the jobs “represent a small portion of full employment,” Bishop said. For companies like Google, Apple Inc. and Facebook Inc., “The only demographic that counts is education.”

Google, both he and Ortega argue, should be evaluated based on the quality of its products and services—its outputs rather than its inputs. From that perspective, Ortega said, the company’s success in the realm of human diversity—a diversity that is much greater than that of the United States alone—cannot be denied. “All over the world, people give Google money and time and advertising because Google pleases an incredibly diverse set of people,” Ortega said. “People are using its services and succeeding in ways they never could without Google.”

Google does not release local employment data, but public sources give an indication of its Bay Area employment footprint. It reports having not quite 47,800 employees globally in its most recent annual report for the fiscal year ended Dec. 31. About half of those workers—26,559—are in the United States, it says. Of those, more than 40 percent are in Mountain View, according to that city’s annual financial report. Google also has thousands of workers in neighboring Sunnyvale and Palo Alto.  It has additional offices in San Francisco.

Unlike the nation at large, Santa Clara and San Francisco counties are more than 30 percent Asian, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In addition, women are underrepresented in Mountain View, Santa Clara County and San Francisco County compared to the national rate of 50.8 percent. In Santa Clara County the rate is estimated at more than 1 percentage point lower than the national, and in Mountain View, the rate is an estimated 1.7 percentage points lower. In San Francisco, women represent 49.3 percent of the population—1.5 percentage points less than the national rate.

Though much talk has been devoted to tech companies’ pursuit of talent in markets globally, what is less appreciated is that companies also determine the labor supply where they locate. The principle is illustrated simply in Ithaca, the New York community where Cornell is located, Bishop said. In Ithaca, local industry consists primarily of Cornell, Ithaca College, local community colleges and a hospital. The remaining enterprises basically serve those big four. The schools’ 20,000 faculty members and students represent a fifth of the regional population. “All of them have come here to do their thing, and we (Ithaca) are totally unique (demographically) in upstate New York,” he said.

“Google needs software engineers. The idea that we criticize a company because it has so many Asians versus nationwide—that’s a silly thing to raise and to make a big deal of,” he said.

At Cornell, half of the candidates for doctoral degrees in computer science and engineering are Asian, he said.

Photos: S. Simonson



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