Timnit Gebru, a leading researcher and voice in the field of ethics and artificial intelligence, says Google fired her for an email she sent to her direct reports. According to Gebru, Google fired her because of an email she sent to subordinates that the company said reflected "behavior that is inconsistent with the expectations of a Google manager."
Gebru, the co-leader of Google Ethical Artificial Intelligence team, took to Twitter last night, shortly after the National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint against Google alleging surveillance of employees and unlawful firing of employees.
I was fired by @JeffDean for my email to Brain women and Allies. My corp account has been cutoff. So I've been immediately fired :-)
— Timnit Gebru (@timnitGebru) December 3, 2020
Gebru says no one explicitly told her she was fired, but that she received an email from one of her boss's reports, saying:
"Thanks for making your conditions clear. We cannot agree to #1 and #2 as you are requesting. We respect your decision to leave Google as a result, and we are accepting your resignation."
That email, according to Gebru, went on to say that "certain aspects of the email you sent last night to non-management employees in the brain group reflect behavior that is inconsistent with the expectations of a Google manager."
I said here are the conditions. If you can meet them great I’ll take my name off this paper, if not then I can work on a last date. Then she sent an email to my direct reports saying she has accepted my resignation. So that is google for you folks. You saw it happen right here.
— Timnit Gebru (@timnitGebru) December 3, 2020
The email in question, obtained by Casey Newton, discussed how Gebru was disappointed in how her organization had, "After all this talk," only hired 14% or so women this year, she wrote. She pointed to how Samy Bengio, who leads a group of researchers inside the Google Brain team, hired 39% women but that there is no incentive for him to do so. She added:
What I want to say is stop writing your documents because it doesn’t make a difference. The DEI OKRs that we don’t know where they come from (and are never met anyways), the random discussions, the “we need more mentorship” rather than “we need to stop the toxic environments that hinder us from progressing” the constant fighting and education at your cost, they don’t matter. Because there is zero accountability. There is no incentive to hire 39% women: your life gets worse when you start advocating for underrepresented people, you start making the other leaders upset when they don’t want to give you good ratings during calibration. There is no way more documents or more conversations will achieve anything. We just had a Black research all hands with such an emotional show of exasperation. Do you know what happened since? Silencing in the most fundamental way possible.
Gebru's email also discussed issues with silencing marginalized voices, how her expertise has been dismissed and how she's felt gaslighted by Google.
We've reached out to both Gebru and Google for comment.
As Bloomberg reported, Gebru has been outspoken about the lack of diversity in tech as well as the injustices Black people in tech face. According to Bloomberg, Gebru believes Google let her go to signal to other workers that it's not ok to speak up.
Gebru is a leading voice in the field of ethics and artificial intelligence. In 2018, Gebru collaborated with Joy Buolamwini, founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, to study biases in facial recognition systems. They found high disparities in error rates between lighter males and darker females, which led to the conclusion that those systems didn't work well for people with darker skin.
Since Gebru's announcement, she's received an outpouring of support from those in the tech community.
To be bold, to be honest, to know your worth, to speak up for others, to do the thankless work, to pioneer the way, to suffer no fools, to be all they could only wish to be, wrapped in black womanhood is an affront to those who would rather see us cower than own our power 1/n
— Joy Buolamwini (@jovialjoy) December 3, 2020
I thought this was a joke because it seemed ridiculous that anyone would fire @timnitGebru given her expertise, her skills, her influence. This is one of the many times when I think there is just no hope for the tech industry. https://t.co/2Px7nkObke
— Ellen K. Pao (@ekp) December 3, 2020
Google declined to comment for this story but pointed to an internal email from Jeff Dean, Gebru's boss. In that email, Dean said:
Given Timnit's role as a respected researcher and a manager in our Ethical AI team, I feel badly that Timnit has gotten to a place where she feels this way about the work we’re doing. I also feel badly that hundreds of you received an email just this week from Timnit telling you to stop work on critical DEI programs. Please don’t. I understand the frustration about the pace of progress, but we have important work ahead and we need to keep at it.