Why did a Google engineer feel empowered to share his sexist memo?

Google Was Right to Fire the Writer of That Sexist Memo. Fixing Its Culture Will Take More Work.

Google Was Right to Fire the Writer of That Sexist Memo. Fixing Its Culture Will Take More Work.

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Aug. 8 2017 10:50 AM

Google Was Right to Fire the Memo Writer

That his sexist manifesto even gained traction at the company suggests its workplace culture has a long way to go.

The Google logo is seen on the Google campus in Mountain View, California, on February 20, 2015.
That someone felt comfortable disseminating this document in the first place says a lot about the company Google currently is.

Susana Bates/AFP/Getty Images

On Saturday, Motherboard reported that an anti-diversity manifesto penned by James Damore, a software engineer at Google, had gone “internally viral” at the company—and then, after Gizmodo obtained and published the 10-page document, it went viral-viral. The screed aired its author’s qualms with diversity and inclusion initiatives at Google, programs he deemed a waste of time because women are inherently less suited for technical roles than men. Or as he put it, in a faux-measured tone: “I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership.” Throughout the memo, Damore dismisses internal programs that are supposed to address race and gender disparities at Google.

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By Monday evening, Google had fired Damore, he confirmed to Bloomberg, after Google CEO Sundar Pichai said his memo violated the firm’s code of conduct. But that came after the company had let the document circulate for days. After it leaked to the press, it generated so much blowback that Pichai cut his family vacation short to deal with the uproar.

Firing an employee who made it clear he felt many of his co-workers were inferior was the right move, and it says something about what Google wants to be as a company. That someone felt comfortable disseminating the document in the first place, however, says even more about the company Google currently is. And the entire episode crystalizes the reckoning Silicon Valley is currently enduring, over why so many of the most forward-thinking companies in the world simply can’t seem to treat all of their employees equally and decently.

Damore’s memo was shocking both to outsiders and to many employees within the company. But for Google—and Silicon Valley writ large—it was also not terribly surprising. The author, after all, was describing a company that has a technical workforce that is 80 percent male and majority white. And one where other apparent Googlers were willing to come to his defense. “I’m impressed. It took serious guts to post that,” responded one person in a thread on Blind, an app where tech employees can talk anonymously, obtained by Motherboard. “I hope nothing happens to the guy.” (Only people with active Google.com email addresses could view the Google Doc where the memo was posted before it was leaked publicly.)

Another Blind commenter: “The fella who posted that is extremely brave. We need more people standing up against the insanity. Otherwise ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ which is essentially a pipeline from Women’s and African Studies into Google, will ruin the company.”

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There is no major U.S. corporation that thinks a gender imbalance like Google’s is tolerable, even as most have a long way to go toward improving that ratio. (Google itself is under federal investigation by the Department of Labor for systematically underpaying female employees across its entire workforce.) It is not radical to think a company ought to improve its employment of underrepresented groups. And in the face of that status quo, it is not shocking that Damore’s manifesto took many of its arguments from the fringe rhetoric of men’s rights activists, who misapply victim status to a group that retains every systemic advantage. And yet this document did find a receptive audience within one of the world’s most valuable companies, even as most people at the company appear to have had strong negative reactions to it. Still, as Erica Baker, a former software engineer at Google, pointed out, what we actually need to re-examine is why he felt so comfortable sharing his plainly bigoted views on a companywide site.

“What about the company culture sends the message that sharing sexism and racism will be accepted?” Baker asked in a Medium post after the memo emerged publicly. “Do we want this to be an environment where racists and sexists feel safe and supported to share their views?”

Damore deemed that it was suitable to share his views in a professional setting—not, say, as an anonymous MRA enthusiast on 4chan but in an internally, widely circulated memo with his name on it. The new diversity and inclusion lead at Google, Danielle Brown, penned an internal response to the document in which she wrote that the engineer “advanced incorrect assumptions about gender.” And yet, as though to excuse his views, she continued that part of fostering inclusivity in Google means ensuring that those with “different political views, feel safe sharing their opinions.”

But as another ex-Googler, Cate Huston, wrote in another Medium post, the bigoted internal email didn’t reveal political views. Rather, his views “are dated nonsense that have been debunked by science — and not recently either.” They didn’t contribute to a productive discourse over company policies. They almost certainly made many Googlers feel unwelcome.

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The memo also is, unfortunately, illustrative of an organization that allows someone with such hard-line prejudices to work there for nearly four years, perhaps even expressing these views in ways that do, in fact, harm the ambitions of women and people of color at the company. That could have happened simply through disrespecting colleagues, participating in hiring decisions, or ignoring Google’s mandatory trainings on “unconscious bias” in the workplace. Damore may point to “biological causes” that prevent women from being successful engineers; in all likelihood, however, he or someone with similar views may have been the variable preventing those women from advancing.

However these views played out, their chronicling in this manifesto are suggestive of a culture that is at least inviting enough for someone who views some of his fellow employees as lesser to share his opinions and for others to cheer him on. And consider the background this plays out against: Since the search giant started sharing diversity data in 2014, the company’s percentage of black employees in technical roles hasn’t improved at all. It was 1 percent in 2014, and it is 1 percent now. The percentage of female technical staff went up from 18 percent in 2015 to 20 percent this year. The dial hasn’t moved that much.

Racism and sexism have long found a home in Silicon Valley, despite the rich history of women’s and underrepresented minorities’ contributions to tech. This has manifested in directly racist and sexist comments and actions by the people who fund, start, and work at tech’s top companies. It has also manifested in alarming product design. From Google’s photo-labeling algorithm that marked black people as gorillas in 2015 to search results that surface mugshots when looking for images of black youth, Google’s products have, at times, reflected prejudicial thinking. Would these snafus have happened in a workplace that was more diverse—that made products for more people than the mostly white men who have a hand in engineering them?

To its credit, Google does have trainings for its employees to try to help them to be less bigoted. But clearly those trainings aren’t having an impact on everyone. The memo targeted Google’s unconscious bias programs as examples of the company pandering to political correctness over the author’s sexist, counterfactual understanding of evolutionary biology. That someone who felt compelled to write it was even employed at Google for so long suggests that the company’s practices aren’t working. Maybe now in the aftermath of Damore’s memo they will, at least a bit. Even if it creates an anti-PC martyr, firing an employee who was comfortable airing his harmful bigotry is a laudable stand. It should have been a no-brainer.

Damore is right that Google’s current diversity practices aren’t enough—just not in the way he thinks. If Google was actually serious about fostering a diverse workplace, the company wouldn’t tolerate the kind of sexism and racism that was broadcast by the engineer in the first place. What women could ever work alongside a colleague or anyone who supports him knowing they think women are less biologically suited for the job? That sounds like a horrible place to work.