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Washington lawmakers want to diversify the country’s science and tech workforce. Today they’ll be seeking best practices from a Silicon Valley company that has been investing in hiring and retaining more women and minorities.
Barbara Whye, Intel’s diversity and inclusion chief, will tell lawmakers at a House Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation hearing this morning that Intel has found success in developing clear diversity hiring goals while investing in strategies to retain employees -- like a confidential tipline that allows employees to report situations making them uncomfortable in the workplace.
She will also advocate for a data-based approach. Whye tracks everything from the number of tipline complaints to the company's efficacy at hitting the hiring targets it sets. If Congress wants to make sure its diversity efforts are transparent and accountable, Whye tells me, data should be a cornerstone of its playbook too.
“What we learned inside of Intel is what you measure matters,” she said in an interview.
These lessons from Whye and other witnesses will be especially useful as the committee's chair, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.) and ranking Republican Frank D. Lucas (Okla.) introduce legislation that aims to measure and address the hurdles facing women and minorities in the STEM industry, particularly in government-funded research and federal science agencies.
But the model programs themselves are no panacea: Silicon Valley has struggled to change its homogenous culture in recent years, even as companies make public pledges to invest in and prioritize diversity. Even Intel has a long road ahead when it comes to solving its own diversity challenges -- and acknowledges the success stories it will present to the House today are just the beginning.
"I don’t think that you can solve everything at the same time," Whye tells me. "It’s been important for us to focus on the most severe areas. Then go to next problem."
Intel made a $300 million pledge to diversify its ranks in 2015 as the tech industry faced great pressure to be more transparent about the diversity of its workforces and do more to bring women and minorities into its ranks.
Intel promised that its workforce would better reflect the available talent pool in the United States by 2020. The company ended up achieving this goal ahead of schedule in 2018, when the company’s workforce was 27 percent female, 9.2 percent Hispanic and a little under 5 percent African American as of fall 2018, according to a Wall Street Journal report.
But the company still has plenty of work to do. Though Intel reached this initial goal, it lags the demographic makeup of the overall American population.
While Intel first focused on hiring more diverse candidates, it quickly realized it wouldn't reach its diversity goals unless it improved its retention efforts too, Whye says. That's when the company decided to implement what it calls a "warmline," which matches employees facing a difficult work situation with case managers who can help them intervene.
Whye tells me common warmline complaints include the employees not feeling challenged enough in their work or that they're not connecting with their managers. More than 20,000 cases have been reported to the warmline, and case managers have achieved an 81% retention rate. Two weeks ago, the company began to roll out the initiative that was previously only available in the U.S. to its global offices.
"We started to really problem solve on what are some things that were standing in way of retention," Whye said.
Whye thinks these confidential employee tiplines are a strategy that could be applied more broadly throughout government, industry and even on campuses. She said it's important for people in the STEM field to have a support system like the one the warmline provides.
As Intel continues to invest in these efforts, Whye tells me lawmaker efforts like Johnson and Lucas's bill, the STEM Opportunities Act, are a "great start." STEM talent is more important now than ever before even at companies outside of Silicon Valley, Whye says, and it's important for lawmakers to help foster a diverse and competitive pool of tech workers, mathematicians and scientists.
As the hearing kicks off this morning, Johnson says she welcomes the feedback from Whye and the other witnesses on what's worked and what challenges remain in their work. Whye is the only industry representative testifying at the hearing, which will also includes witnesses from academia and non-profits.
“Maintaining leadership in science and technology can only be achieved by leveraging all of our brainpower, not only in the federal government but also in academia and in our industries,” Johnson tells me in a statement. “I look forward to discussing the lessons learned, model programs, enduring challenges, and future opportunities for expanding access to STEM studies and careers with our distinguished panel of witnesses during what will be the first Science Committee hearing since 2010 on broadening participation in STEM.”
BITS: Content moderators are essential to Facebook's efforts to keep its site free of suicides, massacres and other graphic posts. But these contractors don't have the same benefits or pay that the company's employees do, and now they're waging a campaign to air their grievances about unsatisfactory work conditions and inadequate counseling, my colleague Elizabeth Dwoskin reports.
The contractors are using their access to Facebook Workplace, the company's internal communications system, to protest micromanagement, pay cuts and the insufficient mental-health resources available for people doing such psychologically taxing jobs. Thousands of employees have seen or commented on these messages, according to a Washington Post review.
“I mean this non-facetiously: why do we contract out work that’s obviously vital to the health of the company and the products we build?” a full-time Facebook product manager who read one of the letters on Workplace asked his colleagues in a chat thread.
There are five counselors on staff to cover about 450 moderators spread across several Austin offices. One of the counselors told Elizabeth that the job could cause a form of post-traumatic stress disorder known as vicarious trauma.
Elizabeth notes that the workers are speaking out more because they're realizing how essential they are to the reputations of some of the globe's most valuable companies. “[Facebook CEO Mark] Zuckerberg talks about us all the time, but then we’re not even on his payroll,” one moderator involved in posting the letters told Elizabeth in an interview.
Facebook is making efforts to improve conditions for these workers, instructing outsourcing firms not to pressure the moderators to hit quotas and guaranteeing access to counseling services for workers worldwide. The moderators who spoke to Elizabeth say that in practice, constant measurement for accuracy is as pressure-inducing as a quota.
“Finding the right balance between content reviewer well-being and resiliency, quality, and productivity to ensure that we are getting to reports as quickly as possible for our community that is reporting content or might need help is very challenging at the scale we operate in,” Facebook spokeswoman Carolyn Glanville told Elizabeth. “We are continually working to get this balance right and improving our operations.”
NIBBLES: Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes called for the social network to be broken up in a searing New York Times op-ed this morning, where he wrote Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg's power is "unprecedented and un-American."
Hughes details the stunning influence Zuckerberg has amassed, both through the company's market position and a lack of regulatory oversight. He slammed the company's governance structure, saying that the company's board functions "more like an advisory committee than an overseer." That's because Zuckerberg controls roughly 60 percent of the voting shares, which gives Zuckerberg the power to determine what people see in their News Feed or what should be deemed harmful content.
"Mark’s influence is staggering, far beyond that of anyone else in the private sector or in government," Hughes writes.
The op-ed follows similar calls from politicians to consider taking antitrust action against Facebook, most notably from Democratic 2020 presidential candidated and Sen. Warren.
"We already have the tools we need to check the domination of Facebook. We just seem to have forgotten about them,” Mr. Hughes writes.
CNN's Donie O'Sullivan noted this call for Facebook to be broken up from a Silicon Valley insider might rock the industry more than similar calls from politicians like Warren:
Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes says it's time to break up the company.— Donie O'Sullivan (@donie) May 9, 2019
My bet is that this will land harder in Silicon Valley than Elizabeth Warren's pledge to break up Big Tech. https://t.co/yAVmsmv5r2
BYTES: Consumer and privacy groups plan to file a complaint today alleging that Amazon's Echo Dot Kids Edition violates a federal law protecting children's privacy online, my colleague Craig Timberg reports. The groups allege the device is illegally collecting voice recordings and other identifying information on users under 13 and say that the system's parental controls are unsound. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos also owns The Washington Post).
The 96-page complaint is the latest in a series by such groups calling on the Federal Trade Commission to step up its enforcement of how leading tech companies treat children and their data. The agency is charged with enforcing the only federal digital privacy law on the books, the 1998 Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, known as COPPA.
“It is incredibly important that not only that Amazon fix these problems but that the FTC enforce COPPA,” Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, an advocacy group based in Boston and the lead complainant, told Craig. “What we need is a COPPA cop on the beat.”
The Echo Dot Kids Edition mentions COPPA in the sign-on procedure and requests parental permission for collecting data from children. But the complaint says the permissions need to be more granular and the portal doesn't have a way of checking that it's the parent providing approval for the child's use of the device. The complaint also say the company stores recordings of the children's voices longer than necessary, and the tools allowing parents to delete the recordings don't work properly. That opens the door for Amazon to collect names, birth dates, home address and phone numbers from the children — without the parents' knowledge, according to the complaint.
The company told Craig the Echo Dot Kids Edition is “compliant with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act” but declined to address the other specific issues the complaint raises.
-- Technology news from the private sector:
-- Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) is taking aim at video games popular among children with legislation that would ban the sale of "loot boxes," my colleagues Tony Romm and Craig Timberg report. These randomized assortments of digital weapons, clothing and other items can be purchased for a fee, but there's increasingly scrutiny that they encourage addictive behaviors and gambling among children.
Hawley's proposed Protecting Children From Abusive Games Act, outlined Wednesday, would cover games specifically for players younger than 18 as well as those for broader audiences where developers know children are making in-game purchases. The games would also be banned from “pay to win” schemes, where players can gain advantages over rivals within the game in exchange for money.
“Social media and video games prey on user addiction, siphoning our kids’ attention from the real world and extracting profits from fostering compulsive habits,” Hawley said in a statement. “No matter this business model’s advantages to the tech industry, one thing is clear: There is no excuse for exploiting children through such practices.”
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