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.

Lee sat down near her office recently to talk about her job. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: There are people in Silicon Valley who say the lack of women, the lack of black and Latino tech workers, is a pipeline problem, essentially faulting U.S. society at large and the education system for the poor numbers. Is that a cop-out? Is it partly true?

A: It’s partly true. I don’t think I would necessarily assign blame to our education system or overarching societal issues. The tech industry obviously has a role to play. But particularly for women, there is a very serious pipeline issue.
We know this because women are now the majority of college grads and yet when it comes to computer science degrees, an important one for Google, only 18 percent are women. In the 1980s, when computer science was becoming a big thing, that number was much higher, at 38 percent. You’ve seen a precipitous decline where women are no longer interested in pursuing the field.
For other under-represented minorities, it’s a different issue. Their representation on college campuses is too low. There’s an educational access and opportunity gap.

Q: What was the impetus (for Google) to take more action?

A: I think we got to a point as a company where we were sufficiently big and thought we ought to take stock of exactly what we looked like. We had been growing by leaps and bounds, just trying to find the best talent, leveraging employee referrals, which are a really prominent source of leads for us to build a workforce. We didn’t pause and examine what that was producing in terms of workforce demographics.
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When we did that in 2013, we were concerned we had arrived at a place we hadn’t aspired to be.

Q: Was Google’s dependence on employee referrals and networks working against diversity?

A: We don’t know the answer to that, but I think it’s fair to surmise that if we’re (recruiting) in the same places all the time, like the most elite colleges in the country, the result is going to be more homogenous than we’d like it to be. And if you rely on people to refer people they know, who tend to look like them and share a similar background, you’re also going to produce sameness. Much of what we’re doing to change the composition of our workforce is to cast a much wider net for talent.

Q: What explains the drop in women studying computer science?

A: We commissioned original research that revealed it’s primarily parents’ encouragement, and perception, and access. Parents don’t see their young girls as wanting to pursue computer science and don’t steer them in that direction. There’s this perception that coding and computer science is really geeky, that it’s a “brogrammer” culture, for boys, for games, for competition. There hasn’t been enough emphasis on the power computing has in achieving social impact. That’s what girls are interested in. They want to do things that matter.

Q: What has been Google employees’ reaction to your work?

A: When I first got into the role in early 2013, the first step was to understand our workforce demographics. We did a major push internally (for employees to self-identify by race and gender on forms). Step two was to tell them about it, because you can’t ask Googlers for a bunch of information and not tell them. When we reported it to Googlers, about a year before we reported it publicly, I think there was a sigh of relief that we pulled the curtain back and were willing to expose what we weren’t very proud of.

Q: Thousands of new Googlers have been hired since you publicly revealed the numbers in May. Are we going to see a significant change this year?

A: It’s going to take a long time. I’m certainly not satisfied. We believe we have a deeper understanding of some of the root causes, but we don’t have the solutions all figured out. Google’s strength is that we’re data-driven and analytical. Our approach, hopefully, will be a byproduct of good solid research and deliberation. When we publish numbers again (probably in June), I would anticipate no one’s going to be wowed. It’s going to take a deep and sustained commitment, which we’re absolutely committed to, to see real meaningful change.

Nancy Lee
Age: 45
Birthplace: Sacramento
Position: Chief of inclusion and diversity at Google
Previous jobs: Employment attorney at Google; attorney at Providian Financial
Education: Law degree from UC Berkeley Boalt School of Law

Five things about nancy Lee
1. A self-described Luddite before she joined Google in 2006, she snail-mailed and wrote by hand part of her application to the tech company.
2. Radiohead fan who followed the British band to multiple cities on its last U.S. tour.
3. Spends a lot of time hiking, biking and running through Marin County, and backpacking elsewhere.
4. Privileges sleep and exercise — but if she’s going to sacrifice one for the other, her morning run takes precedence.
5. Married to her best friend, which she says “makes everything in life better.”

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