2020 saw the tech sector make grand symbolic gestures on social justice issues. As the changeover in US administration turns down the temperature on these policy discussions and a closely divided Congress may stalls any major movements, attention may begin to turn to how companies follow through on their commitments. As a result, 2021 may be a bigger year for company policy than public policy, with companies being held to account by their relationships with stakeholders and a new environment shaping the approach to social justice issues going forward.
Social Justice in 2020
2020 was a momentous year for the tech sector for several reasons, not least its confrontation with social justice issues. Tech companies have long sought to stake out progressive positions in this area, motivated by young and idealistic executive leadership as well as pressure from employees who are given to activism.
With workforce diversity already mediocre at best, the pressure cooker of the Covid-19 lockdown combined with the spark provided by the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement created a conflagration that tech companies had to respond to.
Companies reacted in several ways:
- Senior leadership issued strong public endorsements of Black Lives Matter and calls to action for social justice.
- Founders made major donations to social justice organisations and groups supporting communities of colour.
- Companies announced new hiring decisions, HR commitments and policies to elevate those from disadvantaged communities.
- Several companies walked away from ethically problematic business opportunities, especially relating to bias concerns over AI. While IBM jettisoned this business unit completely, Amazon announced a one-year moratorium on government sales of facial recognition technology.
Companies have bought some good will through these actions. However, they have already faced criticism for making only symbolic gestures or failing to follow through with their commitments. While a more sympathetic Biden Administration can be expected to act on several fronts, a divided Congress is unlikely to make some of the major social justice policy overhauls that activists and company executives have called for.
At the beginning of 2021, we can expect companies to experience the following trends:
Companies will be measured against their targets
In response to racial justice concerns, many companies set very specific targets for hiring, board composition and promotion into senior leadership for persons from minority backgrounds. Microsoft, for example, has pledged to double the number of black senior leaders by 2025, while Google promises to increase the representation of disadvantaged groups in the top leadership ranks by 30% in the same period. These companies have also set new benchmarks for philanthropic giving, providing billions to institutions dedicated to advancing minority communities.
The consequence of setting such targets and making quantifiable commitments is that these companies can be held accountable for them. We can expect activists, watchdogs and civil society groups to do just that. While it may be easy enough for companies to splash the cash and continue to make philanthropic donations, taking steps to advance employees of colour may be challenging, given the abysmal starting point of many Silicon Valley companies. Those who are not making headway will find themselves under a spotlight.
Restraint on facial recognition will deteriorate
One of the most surprising responses by several companies in 2020 was the choice to abandon or freeze certain lines of business. However, 2021 will test whether they are prepared to permanently leave money on the table for the sake of their non-paying stakeholders.
Amazon’s self-imposed one-year moratorium on sales of facial recognition technology to the government expires in June 2021. Six months into their challenge to policymakers to adopt equitable rules, there remains little prospect of Congress doing so. The legislative agenda in 2021 promises to remain crowded by Covid-19-related relief and recovery measures, and there is a real possibility that partisan bickering over appointments and spending will jam up the calendar and burn any of the goodwill needed to get AI and facial recognition regulation accomplished.
Come June, with no prospect of legislative action, we may see Amazon and other companies quietly go back to their old ways of selling AI tools to governments, perhaps with some fig-leaf nod to bias and ethics issues which will satisfy few, rather than cede the market to even less scrupulous competitors.
Employee activism will enter a new stage
Setting clear benchmarks and making strong symbolic endorsements will only enhance the long-term trend towards aggressive employee activism in the tech sector. If companies fail to follow through on commitments they have made, or fall back into their old ways, they can expect a swift reaction from Silicon Valley’s top talent.
The 2020 furor regarding the departure of Timnit Gebru, the technical co-lead of Google’s ethical AI programme and a respected expert on AI and bias, may have provided a flavour of what is to come. As in the case of any prominent departure under less than friendly circumstances, there is sure to be some validity to the grievances on both sides, as well as untold personal backstory. Whatever the merit of her firing, it deprived Google of a prominent woman of colour and respected voice on social justice issues as well as demonstrated at minimum a lack of awareness of how it would be perceived. The result was a PR disaster, employee backlash, and an ultimatum to the CEO. This will not be the last ultimatum a company will face which demands they “walk the walk” on social justice issues.
Why It Matters
After doing the damage control and picking the low-hanging symbolic fruit in 2020, companies face a choice in 2021: will they double down on their commitments to social justice and stakeholder capitalism, even when it means turning away from revenue opportunities or go back to pursing revenue and innovation without the same rigorous regard for the social and ethical impacts of their products and internal culture? In cut-throat competition with less scrupulous competitors in the global AI race, especially from China, the stakes are high, and the costs of slowing the development and deployment of AI are real. However, Silicon Valley companies live and die by the quality of their talent, and companies may bargain that they will innovate better in the long run when they keep their employees happy.
Downstream, these choices may shape the policy stances companies take. If they feel the pressure to continue demonstrating commitment to social justice, we can expect employee activism to be transformed into corporate policy activism. In the United States especially, a stalling of policy momentum in this area will result in pressure on the Biden Administration and open-minded state governments to take more aggressive action ranging from AI ethics rules to corporate governance.
- As issues of company policy become increasingly important, tech firms should consider the diversity of their workforce and outline their approach to meeting social justice commitments.
- Companies should ensure they have robust and well thought-out policy stances on hot-button issues their stakeholders care about, and proactively seek constructive engagement where they can make policy impact.
- Tech companies must assess the impact of their products and services on communities close to and far away from home, and minimise the risk that they are leveraged in a discriminatory and destructive manner.
- The demands of employees for social justice may be just as important as those from external parties, so companies will have to demonstrate a willingness to pursue increased fairness in the workplace and beyond.