OpenAI CEO Sam Altman made an impassioned call for more empathy towards Muslim and Palestinian employees in the tech industry, claiming that many feel uncomfortable speaking up and fear retaliation. His remarks come amid rising tensions in the Middle East and the tech sector’s struggles with diversity and inclusion.
OpenAI CEO Decries “Atrocious Situation”
In a blog post published Thursday, Altman said the current situation for Muslims and Palestinians working in tech is “atrocious,” with many afraid to voice opinions that conflict with the majority view. He called for the tech community to “extend more empathy” and said he would donate $100,000 to relief efforts in the Gaza Strip.
“The situation in Palestine and for a lot of Arab countries – and for a lot of Muslims around the world right now – is pretty atrocious. And I think we in the tech community should be doing what we can to extend more empathy,” he wrote.
Altman said he’s heard from many Muslim colleagues that they feel uncomfortable speaking up because they fear retaliation. He did not provide specifics on those incidents but said “no one should feel this way.”
The OpenAI leader also noted that he is Jewish and has relatives in Israel, indicating his remarks were not meant to inflame tensions. Instead, he framed it as a failure of the tech industry to foster inclusive environments.
“This is an area I think we really need to improve on in the tech community. No one should feel uncomfortable at work to talk about who they are, where they come from and their personal experiences,” he stated.
Silicon Valley Struggles With Diversity
Altman’s comments cast a spotlight on broader diversity challenges facing Big Tech and startups centered in Silicon Valley and beyond.
While companies like Google, Facebook and Microsoft have devoted more resources to inclusion programs in recent years, the tech workforce remains predominantly white and Asian. Just 5% of technical roles at leading tech companies are held by Black and Latino workers, according to 2021 data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Meanwhile, there are signs that hostility towards marginalized groups, including Muslims, may be increasing. Reported hate crimes against Muslims surged 67% in 2021 to the highest level since 2001, FBI data showed.
|Reported Anti-Muslim Hate Crimes
| 2020 | 127 | –
| 2021 | 213 | +67% |
High-profile incidents at tech companies like Apple, Amazon and others have also sparked calls for reform. Last year, a Muslim employee at Apple said he was forced to remove an Arabic phrase meaning “thanks be to God” from his LinkedIn profile due to complaints, while an Amazon warehouse worker alleged discrimination for taking prayer breaks.
Former Pinterest executive Ifeoma Ozoma, who led whistleblower efforts alleging pay discrimination and retaliation, said tech firms enable toxicity through non-disclosure agreements and forced arbitration clauses that dissuade claims.
“Companies aren’t just allowing it, they’re funding it they are paying people to keep their mouth shut after experiencing racism, discrimination and sexual violence,” she told Arab News last year.
What Comes Next?
It remains unclear if Altman’s remarks will spur concrete change within OpenAI or the broader tech sector. However, his prominent role as CEO of the high-profile AI research firm gives added weight to the discussion at a tense time.
Altman helped found OpenAI in 2015 alongside icons like Elon Musk with the mission of ensuring artificial intelligence is developed safely to benefit humanity. The San Francisco-based nonprofit recently unveiled chatbot technology called ChatGPT that can generate essays, articles and other text in response to prompts.
OpenAI says it strives for diversity but has disclosed little data about actual makeup of its workforce.
Going forward, Altman said he hopes his $100,000 personal donation can make a small difference for those suffering amid ongoing conflict. More broadly, he called for empathy, compassion and a willingness to listen to the experiences of marginalized groups.
“I think the only way we get to resolution on a lot of conflicts like this is through open and honest and empathetic communication,” he said.
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