Members of Google’s ethical AI team reportedly complained about harassment and bias years before being fired

Timnit Gebru
Timnit Gebru was ousted from Google in December 2020.

  • Google’s former lead AI ethics experts reportedly raised complaints of harassment years before being fired.
  • Timnit Gebru and Margaret Mitchell flagged bullying and misconduct in 2018, Bloomberg reported.
  • Google said some of the accounts were inaccurate and that it investigated harassment allegations thoroughly.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Two of Google’s most prominent researchers into AI ethics had flagged issues around sexual harassment and bullying long before they were fired from the company, Bloomberg reported.

Timnit Gebru and Margaret Mitchell, once chief AI ethicists at the tech giant, made headlines when they were ousted from the company in December 2020 and February this year respectively.

According to Bloomberg, the pair raised a number of concerns with senior management over the behavior of some colleagues in 2018, years before they were themselves kicked out.

Bloomberg outlined a litany of complaints by the pair to senior figures within Google.

In one instance, Gebru reportedly informed her superiors that a colleague, whose identity remains undisclosed, had previously been accused of sexual harassment at another company. Google said that it subsequently opened an investigation.

According to the report, both Gebru and Mitchell told the firm’s AI chief Jeff Dean about this colleague’s past behavior. They also discussed their fears of gender disparity among senior employees, including a “pattern of women being excluded and undermined” on the AI research team, and a number of women employees being assigned lower roles than less-qualified men.

The allegations came in mid-2018, just as new details of sexual misconduct allegations against former Android chief Andy Rubin emerged, which prompted a walkout staged by almost 20,000 Googlers worldwide. Rubin has denied all allegations of misconduct against him.

“I did not go into it thinking this is a great place,” Gebru said in an interview with Bloomberg.

“There were a number of women who sat me down and talked to me about their experiences with people, their experiences with harassment, their experiences with bullying, their experiences with trying to talk about it and how they were dismissed.”

However, Dean reportedly pushed back against the idea there was any systemic misogyny within the team, but subsequently announced a new research project led by the alleged harasser. Dean reportedly fired this person a short time later, in June 2019, citing “leadership issues “.

Gebru and a number of her co-workers are said to have reported other instances of workplace misconduct, bullying, and obstructive behavior among leadership.

In early 2020, around nine months before she was fired, Gebru says she wanted to examine a dataset publicly released by Waymo, Google’s sister self-driving vehicle company, to see if there was any difference in the way its AI detected skin color.

Bloomberg reported that the project was obstructed by months of internal “legal haggling”, resulting in Gebru and her team abandoning the project.

Waymo didn’t comment on the project directly, but a spokesperson told Bloomberg the company uses “a range of sensors and methodologies to reduce the risk of bias in our AI models.”

Meanwhile, Mitchell claims she had been denied a promotion while at Google due to “nebulous complaints to HR about her personality.”

Google told Bloomberg that it found no evidence that a HR employee had used those words to describe her.

The company pushed back against claims it had ignored allegations of harassment and said some of the reported accounts were inaccurate.

“We investigate any allegations and take firm action against employees who violate our clear workplace policies,” a Google spokesperson said in a statement. “Many of these accounts are inaccurate and don’t reflect the thoroughness of our processes and the consequences for any violations.”

Earlier this month, Alphabet investor Trillium Asset Management called on Google to introduce better protections for whistleblower employees.

The firm, which reportedly owns around $140 million worth of Alphabet stock, filed a shareholder resolution calling on the company to better workers that speak out against their managers.

Are you a current or former Googler with more to share? You can contact this reporter securely using the encrypted messaging app Signal (+447801985586) or email (mcoulter@businessinsider.com). Reach out using a non-work device.

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Two Google engineers quit over the firing of senior Black employees: ‘They were wronged.’

Timnit Gebru
Timnit Gebru, former co-lead of Google’s ethical artificial intelligence team

  • Two software engineers have quit Google, citing the treatment of two Black employees.
  • Internal staffing disputes have spilled over into public view, most notably with the departure of AI ethics lead Timnit Gebru.
  • Engineer David Baker said the recent issues had ‘extinguished’ his desire to continue as a Googler.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

A pair of senior Google engineers have resigned from the company, citing its treatment of two Black employees. 

In December, the tech giant saw staffing issues spill into public view after lead AI ethicist Timnit Gebru said she was fired over an email she sent to an internal company group, and a dispute over an academic paper she was working on.

Later in December, diversity recruiter April Christina Curley claimed she had been sacked following a series of disputes with her managers. 

Now two senior software engineers, David Baker and Vinesh Kannan, have resigned, citing the company’s recent treatment of Gebru and Curley. 

Read more: Firings, reorgs and flaring tensions: Inside the last two months of turmoil at Google’s AI division

In a letter seen by Reuters, Baker, who previously focused on user safety at the company, said the departures of Gebru and Curley had “extinguished my desire to continue as a Googler,” and prompted him to resign in January.

He added: “We cannot say we believe in diversity and then ignore the conspicuous absence of many voices from within our walls.” 

Meanwhile, Kannen, who had focused on search, tweeted on Wednesday that he had left the company because “Google’s mistreatment of @TimnitGebru and @RealAbril crossed a personal red line.”

“I know I gained a lot from Google,” he wrote. “But I also gained a lot from both of their work. And they were wronged.” 

The search engine behemoth has faced mounting pressure to deal with employee dissatisfaction in recent months, which culminated in the formation of a minority union of around 800 Googlers last month

Google has about 132,121 worldwide employees, according to its quarterly reports.

The firm has disputed both Gebru and Curley’s accounts of their departures.

In a recent World Economic Forum appearance, CEO Sundar Pichai said Google’s recent infighting had become publicly visible because the company is “more transparent” than its rivals.

Insider approached Google for comment. 

Are you a current or former Googler or DeepMinder with more to share? You can contact this reporter securely using the encrypted messaging app Signal (+447801985586) or email (mcoulter@businessinsider.com). Reach out using a non-work device.

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Google says it is investigating an AI ethicist for sharing sensitive documents, amid bristling tensions between employees and leadership

Jeff Dean
  • Google says it has locked out one of its lead AI ethicists from her corporate account due to an investigation into her recent actions.
  • A Google spokesperson said Margaret Mitchell’s account “had exfiltrated thousands of files and shared them with multiple external accounts.”
  • Sources say Mitchell was reprimanded by management on Tuesday and locked out of her corporate account and email, but has not been fired.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Google has suspended the corporate account of Margaret Mitchell, a lead on its ethical AI team, claiming she downloaded and shared sensitive documents with external accounts.

A Google spokesperson confirmed late on Tuesday that Mitchell’s corporate access, including her work email, had been locked. 

The news was first reported by Dr. Timnit Gebru, who previously co-led Google’s ethical AI division with Mitchell and left the company in December after she said she was fired.

“[Margaret’s] not fired **yet**. But apparently they’ve told her she will be locked out for at least a few days,” tweeted Gebru on Tuesday. A current employee, who asked to remain anonymous because they were not permitted to talk to the press, also told Business Insider that Mitchell had been reprimanded by management, but not fired.

A Google spokesperson confirmed Mitchell had been locked out of her corporate account and claimed it was because she had shared “thousands” of files with external accounts.

“Our security systems automatically lock an employee’s corporate account when they detect that the account is at risk of compromise due to credential problems or when an automated rule involving the handling of sensitive data has been triggered. In this instance, yesterday our systems detected that an account had exfiltrated thousands of files and shared them with multiple external accounts. We explained this to the employee earlier today,” they said.

“We are actively investigating this matter as part of standard procedures to gather additional details,” the spokesperson said.

Mitchell did not immediately respond to Business Insider’s request for comment.

Mitchell has been vocal in criticizing Google over Gebru’s ousting and its commitment to diversity and inclusion. Google continues to contest it fired Gebru, and says it instead accepted her resignation, but the debacle has aggravated tensions between employees and top brass.

Last week, Mitchell said in a tweet that she was compiling a document of “critical issues” from [Gebru’s] firing, which would be shared with Jeff Dean and other Google leadership.

“I plan to share publicly everything me and @timnitGebru agree on. I believe it is the only way it will be taken seriously,” she said.

Are you a current or former Googler with more to share? You can contact this reporter securely using the encrypted messaging app Signal (+1-628-228-1836) or encrypted email (hslangley@protonmail.com). Reach out using a nonwork device.

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