Q&A: Google’s Nancy Lee, On Diversifying The Tech Workforce

By Matt O’Brien
San Jose Mercury News.

Her straightforward approach and passion for helping the disenfranchised landed Nancy Lee her current job as Google’s chief of diversity and inclusion.

It also got her fired from her first. Lee grew up in Sacramento working at a Chuck E. Cheese franchise where a customer one day brought Lee’s elderly co-worker to tears, demanding a replacement birthday hostess who wasn’t so old and didn’t have a foreign accent.

“I had this 16-year-old sense of social justice, which led me to go out and have words with this mom,” said Lee, who recalls telling her, “Who do you think you are?”

No one today is going to fire Lee for speaking the truth about Silicon Valley’s dismal diversity problem, but she might have one of the hardest jobs in the industry: leveling a playing field that is heavily skewed against women, African-Americans and Latinos.

Lee had been working at Google since 2006, mostly as an employment attorney, before the company tapped her in 2013 to set out a strategy and agenda for improving workforce diversity. The first step, she said, was understanding it.

After fighting a 2010 attempt by this newspaper to disclose the racial and gender breakdown of its employees, Google last year became the first big tech company to come clean about the demographics of its tech workforce: 83 percent male, and only 2 percent Latino and 1 percent black.

About one year ago, Lee rolled out training on how unconscious bias can seep into the workplace. More than 26,000 employees have participated in the voluntary lectures and the philosophy is now baked into how workers are hired and evaluated. She’s also pushed Google to spend more time recruiting at historically black colleges and universities, and improve the experience under-represented workers have when they get to campus.

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