Driven by Data, Diversity

This article accompanies Great Reports.

Nancy Lee wants everyone to know that Google doesn't just want to help organize the world's information: The tech giant also wants a workforce that reflects the world's diversity.

Monday, June 9, 2014
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As Google's director of diversity, integrity and governance, Nancy Lee helps oversee the company's outreach to women and minorities. Those efforts include making the study of computer science more appealing to young women, whose numbers have continued to plummet in the ranks of college graduates obtaining CS degrees: down from 37 percent 20 years ago to just 18 percent today, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

"We're working with colleges and high schools to try and make the study of computer science more girl- and women-friendly," says Lee, who -- prior to joining Mountain View, Calif.-based Google in 2006 -- managed commercial litigation and employment law for Providian Financial Corp.

Lee oversaw a 2013 Google survey of 1,600 U.S. high-school students and recent college graduates, designed to uncover the reasons why women choose -- or decline -- to pursue the subject. The research showed that early encouragement from adults, girls' self-perceived interest and ability in math, and the availability of CS courses in high school are important factors. It also revealed girls tend to be much more interested than boys in seeing a connection between writing code and social impact, rather than just the thrill of hacking, she says.

"It tends to be the boys who show up for CS courses, and that's partly because of the way the curriculum is designed, promoted and marketed," says Lee.

CS courses often feature problem sets structured around video games or poker -- things that tend not to resonate with girls, says Lee. Indeed, despite Silicon Valley's status as one of the world's capitals of innovation and wealth generation, computer science itself continues to be viewed in many quarters as a bastion of male geeks.

"We're working on a marketing campaign that will refocus the image of computer science on how it can help solve the world's problems," says Lee.

Lee is also at the forefront of Google's efforts to recruit and retain more female and minority employees -- these include putting itself under sharp scrutiny. She received a standing ovation after a recent speech in front of Google's 375 top-ranking women, in which she encouraged them to "be part of the solution" in helping more women find careers in the high-tech industry, and at Google in particular.

"I wanted the resounding message to be: It's not a level playing field out there, and we all need to be part of the solution," she says.

Lee's boss, Vice President for People Operations Laszlo Bock, was also impressed by her presentation.

"[Lee] didn't sugarcoat the challenges that lay ahead, but garnered confidence by laying out specifics of what advances have already been made and enlisted [the women's] support with specific calls to action," he says. "The most senior women at Google felt she was honest and real, but that she also had their backs."

Lee relies heavily on numbers and metrics in promoting the importance of diversity and inclusion at Google -- appropriately enough, considering the company's very name is based on a very large number, "googol." However, getting this data in the first place proved challenging. When Lee assumed her current role, only 36 percent of Googlers self-identified their ethnicity information in the company's HR systems. She set an ambitious goal of doubling that to 72 percent.

"We carefully explained to Googlers why it was important for us to have this data and what it would be used for," she says.

Lee exceeded her goal: By the close of the campaign, 78 percent of Googlers had self-identified this information. Lee has called for integrating this information-collection process into Google's onboarding programs in the United States and at its overseas locations. The data will better enable Google to share demographic information with its employees, compare itself to its peers and build a comprehensive diversity and inclusion strategy.

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Lee is also encouraging Googlers to be aware, not only of their company's demographics, but also of their own unconscious biases.

"We are hard-wired, as human beings, to make certain judgments -- to take certain mental shortcuts that can influence our decision making," she says.

When talking with Googlers about this, she cites the example of working at your laptop in a café and needing to use the restroom: If you needed to ask a stranger to keep an eye on your laptop until you returned, which person would you ask, and why?

"You might make a judgment based on the surface attributes of the people you see," says Lee. "We need to guard against these unconscious biases so they don't affect who we decide to hire or how we rate someone's performance."

Lee worked with others at Google in creating unconscious-bias workshops -- within a year, more than 20,000 Googlers had participated in them.

Just as Google seeks to make the world's information more accessible, it wants the world to see Google the company as universally accessible, she says.

"We want everyone to believe not only [that they could] work at Google, but when they do, they can bring their whole selves to work," she says.

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