Google's chief executive Sundar Pichai on Wednesday apologized in the aftermath of the dismissal of a prominent Black scientist whose ouster set off widespread condemnation from thousands of Google employees and outside researchers.
Timnit Gebru, who helped lead Google's Ethical Artificial Intelligence team, said that she was fired last week after having a dispute over a research paper and sending a note to other Google employees criticizing the company for its treatment of people of color and women, particularly in hiring.
"I've heard the reaction to Dr. Gebru's departure loud and clear: it seeded doubts and led some in our community to question their place at Google. I want to say how sorry I am for that, and I accept the responsibility of working to restore your trust," Pichai wrote to Google employees on Wednesday, according to a copy of the email reviewed by NPR.
Since Gebru was pushed out, more than 2,000 Google employees have signed an open letter demanding answers, calling Gebru's termination "research censorship" and a "retaliatory firing."
In his letter, Pichai said the company is conducting a review of how Gebru's dismissal was handled in order to determine whether there could have been a "more respectful process."
Pichai went on to say that Google needs to accept responsible for a prominent Black female leader leaving Google on bad terms.
"This loss has had a ripple effect through some of our least represented communities, who saw themselves and some of their experiences reflected in Dr. Gebru's. It was also keenly felt because Dr. Gebru is an expert in an important area of AI Ethics that we must continue to make progress on — progress that depends on our ability to ask ourselves challenging questions," Pichai wrote.
Pichai said Google earlier this year committed to taking a look at all of the company's systems for hiring and promoting employees to try to increase representation among Black workers and others underrepresented groups.
"The events of the last week are a painful but important reminder of the progress we still need to make," Pichai wrote in his letter, which was earlier reported by Axios.
In a series of tweets, Gebru said she did not appreciate Pichai's email to her former colleagues.
"Don't paint me as an 'angry Black woman' for whom you need 'de-escalation strategies' for," Gebru said.
"Finally it does not say 'I'm sorry for what we did to her and it was wrong.' What it DOES say is 'it seeded doubts and led some in our community to question their place at Google.' So I see this as 'I'm sorry for how it played out but I'm not sorry for what we did to her yet,'" Gebru wrote.
One Google employee who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation said Pichai's letter will do little to address the simmering strife among Googlers since Gebru's firing.
The employee expressed frustration that Pichai did not directly apologize for Gebru's termination and continued to suggest she was not fired by the company, which Gebru and many of her colleagues say is not true. The employees described Pichai's letter as "meaningless PR."
Editor's note: Google is among NPR's financial supporters.
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