Analysis: Big Tech Financial and Racial Equity Pledges Often Misalign With Actions

Accessing whether or not big tech companies are making good on the social equity pledges made last summer is complicated. Some companies have sent clear signals that their activism may have been performative at best as ethical standards falter. 

A notable example is Google’s pipeline for Black talent. The tech giant has hardly addressed its treatment of former lead AI researcher Timnut Gebru and the firing of April Christina Curley, who helped increase diversity at the company. Following Curley’s departure, HBCU 20×20 terminated its partnership with Google, which added insult to injury as executives continue to issue tone-deaf statements on the strength of their brand. All this is happening as Google For Startups Black Founders Fund is paving the way for the Black tech ecosystem to thrive.  

This makes Apple’s announcement of a series of projects as part of its $100 million Racial Equity and Justice Initiative on Wednesday good news with a grain of salt. 

Programs designed to diversify the tech industry and the workforce of big tech companies are public-facing stances, but the treatment and retention of Black workers within these companies may paint a different, more discriminatory picture. 

While Google declined to comment for this story and Apple did not respond to The Plug‘s request, a Google spokesperson provided a previously issued statement about Google’s meaningful change regarding retention policies needing to come from within the company. 

“We are dedicated to hiring and retaining Black+ and other underrepresented talent at Google, and we’re committed to strengthening our partnerships with HBCUs.” the statement read. “This work is critical – in 2019 we welcomed graduates from 19 HBCUs and over the past decade, we’ve expanded our recruiting efforts to more than 800 schools.”

After recruiting, the problem in the tech industry continues to be retention and providing a safe space for Black talent to thrive.

Another example of large tech companies failing to advocate for and outright oppressing Black employees is Pinterest. Former employees Ifeoma Ozoma and Aerica Shimizu Banks left the social media company after lodging complaints of unequal pay and discrimination. It is reported the two women received less than one year’s severance pay after speaking up, while former COO Franćoise Brougher, a non-Black employee, received a $22.5 million settlement for her gender discrimination lawsuit. The variance in outcomes sends a clear message to people of color who challenge the racism and sexism of big tech companies. 

For every Gebru, Ozoma and Banks that speaks out, countless Black workers may be suffering in silence for fear of retaliation, being ignored or getting blacklisted from an industry they worked so hard to enter. A 2020 Gallup study of more than 8,000 U.S. employees found that 75% of Black employees faced race-based discrimination in the workplace.

Big tech companies have allocated millions of dollars to appear to be on the right side of history. A missing component of these efforts is follow-through on how Black employees get treated once they do land jobs in tech. An assessment of how well diversity funding and training have worked at places like Google, Facebook and Pinterest suggest that the largest tech companies have created and rewarded company culture with a gaping moral deficit. 

Product offerings will increasingly cater to a more diverse world. Apple’s Propel Center, a learning hub for HBCUs, may educate and orient an up and coming generation of Black workers in technology, but stamping out the racism that often keeps them from succeeding will be the actual return on investment. Real accountability for how diverse workforces are treated will decreasingly be a matter of conscience but a financial imperative. 

Monica Melton

Monica Melton is the managing editor of The Plug Insights. She previously covered innovation, technology, and venture capital at Forbes. She has also covered politics at POLITICO, entertainment for Time Out New York, but her most fascinating beat has been covering the intersection of technology, finance, and entrepreneurship. She is an alumna of CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and the University of Washington.