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How a transgender Google engineer fights prejudice with empathy

Liz Fong-Jones, a Google Cloud Platform engineer, has been a passionate advocate of inclusion–for employees and users–since 2010: “Employee organizing [in tech] is not new. It’s just [this] public manifestation of it that is.”

How a transgender Google engineer fights prejudice with empathy
[Source illustration: BenBushnell/Pixabay]

“Employees at Google have been fairly vocal about making sure that the company upholds its pledge to not be evil,” says Liz Fong-Jones
. The Google Cloud Plat
form engineer has played a role in Trump-era activism by assisting the 2016 Never Again pledge. Her code made it easier to verify the identities of over 2,800 signatories who promised not to work on discriminatory or otherwise harmful projects, such as a hypothetical “Muslim database.” Fong-Jones calls it one of the first times that tech workers publicly united across companies to stand up for their ethical values in how technology is used.

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But she has been standing up within Google as an inclusion advocate–for employees and users–since 2010 (two years after joining the company). “Employee organizing [in tech] is not new,” she says. “It’s just [this] public manifestation of it that is.”

Fong-Jones began with a focus on equity engineering–flagging and working to remedy cases in which products don’t meet the needs of marginalized communities. A simple example would be insuring accessibility for vision- or hearing-impaired users, but it can extend to addressing harmful technologies, as Never Again sought to do.

Liz Fong Jones [Photo: courtesy of Liz Fong Jones]
Fong-Jones expanded her advocacy from customers to employees, focusing on the needs of minority populations inside Google, including her own transgender community. “Our medical coverage previously placed limits on the dollar value of coverage trans people could receive,” she says. “[People were] being forced to pay tens of thousands of dollars out of their own pockets.” That’s one of many employee issues she’s taken on, including gender pay equity, performance-review reforms, and increasing opportunities for advancement.

While her advocacy work has always subjected her to tension, the environment grew much more hostile in August 2017, shortly after James Damore’s “Ideological Echo Chamber” memo, questioning the innate ability of women to be engineers, went viral inside the company. (Damore was soon fired.)

Google has fostered an open culture, encouraging employees to discuss nearly any interest in fora like Google Groups, email lists, the Google+ social network, a meme generator, and regular all-company meetings. But institutions meant to bring employees closer together are now pushing them apart.

Fong-Jones became a public target when part of a Google+ conversation criticizing the publishing of Damore’s memo was leaked to an alt-right blog. Thus began a process of targeting Fong-Jones and other Google diversity advocates both inside and outside the company. “I and seven other Google employees were publicly blamed by individuals such as Milo Yiannopoulos for James Damore’s firing,” she says. “And that resulted in death threats and harassment that have persisted to this day.”

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Within Google, Fong-Jones claims that a tiny contingent of “white supremacist” and chauvinist staffers has been trolling other employees on internal networks. “There are times when people will ask kind of ‘101’ questions [about diversity and inclusion],” she says. “And it’s hard to tell whether it’s an attempt to learn or whether it’s an attempt to waste your time or if it’s a particular kind of clueless or antagonizing question meant to make you mad.”


Related: How tech workers became activists


In January, Fong-Jones felt compelled to take the company’s inclusion struggles public, with exposes in Wired and Gizmodo.

That’s not how she likes to do things. “If something spills into the media, this a failure,” she says. “We’ve been a lot more vocal . . . since January because of the fact that we realized that our ability to safely organize both on product issues and on our labor issues was at risk.”

The danger continues, she claims, with ongoing leaks and harassment. “I’ve accepted some degree of risk in being kind of the spokesperson of a group of organizers, but other people haven’t signed up for that,” says Fong-Jones.

Yet she realizes that she can’t do it all. So Fong-Jones says that she’s now “equipping other employees to fight for change in their workplaces–whether at Google or not –so that I’m not a single point of failure.”

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About the author

Sean Captain is a Bay Area technology, science, and policy journalist. Follow him on Twitter @seancaptain.

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