There Are No Winners, Only Losers in the Timnit Gebru-Google Situation

So, Google is in the news this week, and not in a good way. The company fired Timnit Gebru, co-leader of its Ethical Artificial Intelligence team, and her release to the marketplace was not amiable.

Gebru announced her departure on Twitter after it happened, and immediately made it clear that it was hinky. She said she was fired for sending an email to subordinates in Brain Women and Allies, a kind of employee resource group, and the company subsequently said her actions exhibited “behavior that is inconsistent with the expectations of a Google manager.”

I agree. Sending that email was completely inappropriate. As a client recently said to me, leaders don’t get to have a bad day. And as a double minority working in tech, Gebru knows very well that truth-telling is not usually welcome, no matter how many verbal assertions one may receive to the contrary.

But while she made the wrong move, I understand completely what motivated her actions: Gebru is tired. And when you’re tired, one of the first things you do is seek comfort, ease, resolution. If you’re a black woman, that often means reaching out to those who need the information you now possess, so you share it.

I suspect she was quite weary from the battle she was unsuccessfully waging at Google to promote diversity, inclusion and equity. Once it finally clicked for her that she was wasting her time, she wanted to ensure that concerned parties would immediately stop expending their energy on a fruitless mission.

“…there is zero accountability…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.” 

Gebru’s no fool. Her firing was related to a research paper she and a few others had written, that was denied release/publication at the last minute. She could connect the dots on timing, language, intention, and realizing that her battle at Google would extend to her being blocked as a voice in the greater AI ethics community at large? Dude, that’s too much. So, frustrated, upset, and probably bone deep mentally and physically exhausted, she wrote an email.

“…now there’s an additional layer saying any privileged person can decide that they don’t want your paper out with zero conversation. So you’re blocked from adding your voice to the research community—your work which you do on top of the other marginalization you face here.”

Now, as a professional, I have to advise against anyone telling her particular tale via moderated email. That’s veering into, what should we call it? Disloyalty? A lack of professionalism? We’ll go with those because they’re true, and because they’re easy.

The better play would have been to secure the paper and the research — if she has any legal right to them, which she may not since she was working on Google’s time — and start to seriously consider her next move. The savviest professionals often recognize when their time in a specific place is coming to an end, and they prepare to jump.

“Writing more documents and saying things over and over again will tire you out but no one will listen,” she wrote.

Her best next steps could have been to shore up and expand an already extremely positive and well-respected external brand in the marketplace. That could mean setting up her own company, securing outside funding for research explicitly not under Google’s purview, participating in more speaking engagements, and any other activity to establish her voice in the industry and expand her opportunities. That could also mean looking around for a new place to land with that great research idea in tow.

Gebru can do all of that now, but first she’s going to have to recover from this hit. Being fired, especially if you feel it was done unfairly — meaning it had nothing to do with your job performance — is one of the grossest feelings a professional can experience. And I know she’s hurting because she’s all over social media, hurting.

One of the last tweets I saw yesterday was her saying she needed a lawyer. Not sure Twitter’s the best place to find one, but hey. The way these innanets (Amanda Seales plug) are set up, I will never say never. That sort of communication is not doing her overall image any favors, however.

I empathize with her though. Being fired sucks. We could bandy words to decide if one email, no matter how damaging and revealing it might be, is sufficient grounds for termination. But the email is just the tip of the iceberg. I can’t say for certain, but I suspect her dismissal was probably on the cards already, and had been for a while. Especially since she’s openly challenged her former boss Jeff Dean before.

Sill, that’s the nature of the DEI beast at a certain corporate level. Ironically, one must ruffle feathers when attempting to change the status quo, and those who ruffle feathers may occasionally get their own plucked. But you don’t become a voice for DEI because you want to.

Gebru didn’t decide to do that job because she wanted to: bang her head against a wall, play endless rounds of the diversity cha cha – one step forward, two steps back – and be gaslighted while struggling to get the basics, dignity, respect and parity on top of the tasks related to her not insignificant job.

She’s doing that work because she’s called to. She’s compelled to. She’s got some talent in a certain area, and this is where the wind led her. Unfortunately, that same wind fights her at almost every turn, buffeting against her, stealing her breath, just as if she was outside, head down, rain stinging her eyes in a raging gale, struggling to move forward.

I know where her head was at when she sent that email. She wanted those who follow her, who look to her for guidance, to immediate pivot, to protect themselves, to realign their energy to activities directly in their best interest. She wanted them to stop wasting time fighting a losing battle, to instead refocus their resources and bandwidth on a path that would actually bear fruit.

It’s no different than me advising a younger woman how to behave in the aftermath of a negative work situation. “You can learn the hard way, but I don’t want you to. I already made that mistake for you. Now you can benefit from my experience and move easier, with more grace.”

But it’s been gratifying to see the outpouring of support and compliments for her that seem to proliferate online. I wish Gebru the very best of luck, and I look forward to seeing what she does next.

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