That Infamous Google Memo Says Plenty About What's Wrong With Tech and Why It's So Hard to Talk About
James Damore's ideas about gender rested on a foundation of discredited pseudo-science, yet he was successful in a cutting-edge industry.
America emerged from the 2016 presidential election a fractured country -- no longer divided primarily between two parties but spread across a splintered web of ideologies and opinions. In these times, it feels unclear not only where people stand on social and political issues but what can be questioned without causing offense.
The recent memo by a Google employee on diversity in the workplace and the author’s subsequent termination serve as a microcosm of a blistering problem the tech industry continues to face in this environment: how to safely approach social problems and agree as a community on solutions.
In this industry, we have a subset of people advocating for a diverse and inclusive workforce, a majority of people who do not understand what the big deal is, and another smaller group actively opposing these efforts.
To understand what James Damore, the Google employee and memo-author, did wrong and why he was eventually fired, it’s important to recognize that he raised two very different types of issues: first, questions surrounding the efficacy of Google’s corporate practices on diversity and inclusion and, second, arguments akin to “scientific racism,” when biology is used to maintain existing social hierarchies.
Ensuring space to ask the questions.
First, the memo raises questions about corporate diversity and inclusion practices. We have to go back to the elementary school adage of “No question is a dumb question.” Honest conversations and openness remain crucial to an organization’s creation of a community of committed allies in diversity and inclusion.
I’ve encountered many questions both as a senior woman in technology and a lawyer at a predominantly-male law firm. Whether it is overt or behind closed doors, people ask whether diversity hiring goals lower the bar for talent; why they have to go to trainings and whether they really make a difference; if we are elevating women at the expense of disadvantaging men; if a woman got a promotion just because she is a woman.
It’s imperative to create space for employees to safely ask these questions, however painful, embarrassing or hurtful they may feel. First, they inform corporate strategy and unearth shortcomings in offerings needed by all employees, not just women or other underrepresented groups. Conversely, transparency and willingness in answering the questions can help company leadership spur passive supporters into actively championing diversity and inclusion.
In other words, providing space for all employees to safely ask “Why?” is critical to fostering a holistically inclusive community and an optimal work environment for all.
Debunking “scientific sexism.”
On the second issue, the “scientific sexism” sentiments and assertions Damore raises have absolutely no place in the workplace. The memo bears striking resemblance to arguments one might have heard in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the rise of modern social and physical science inspired many Americans, including leading academicians, to try classifying humans into hierarchical racial or ethnic groups.
Such efforts found expression in a report by the Dillingham Commission on Immigration, an official government task force, that identified "45 races or peoples among immigrants coming to the United States, and of these 36 are indigenous to Europe." It sought to ascribe certain strengths and weaknesses to each, and to order them in terms of desirability and fitness for American citizenship.
This radicalized thinking fell sharply out of favor both in academic circles and in popular culture in the 1930s and 1940s, but remarkably, second-wave feminists in the 1960s and 1970s found themselves confronting awfully similar arguments about women's emotional, physical and intellectual capacity to work alongside men in professional jobs, play sports, thrive in military service or even enjoy equal access to banking facilities and consumer credit. Women who took issue with second-class status, argued Phyllis Schlafly, the famed anti-feminist, should “take up your complaint with God.”
We've come a long way since the early 1970s but Damore still relies on numerous stereotypes about women, which he attempts to justify using unfounded scientific reasoning, to explain why the tech industry has struggled to achieve equal gender representation.
Damore fails to recognize that none of these stereotypes are exclusively applicable to women and are not applicable to all women. Cultural deficiencies and norms are, in large part, the cause of certain gender differences. Programs focused on women do not discriminate against men but instead create a level playing field for everyone. He tries to use science to reinforce cultural deficiencies when we need to be working to overcome them.
With all of these facts in mind, Damore’s “scientific sexism” arguments rendered his continued employment at Google untenable. I cannot imagine how a woman would be a peer or direct report of Damore’s after his widely publicized scientific sexism views. There would be a constant question as to fairness of all aspects of decision-making in the workplace with him.
The major lesson other businesses and organizations can learn from Google’s recent fallout is this: now more than ever, we must empower employees to actively engage in conversations on diversity and inclusion, to ask questions and to constructively challenge the status quo. Below are some actionable takeaways business leaders can apply to their talent and diversity and inclusion strategies moving forward:
Lean into the unrest: Create and allow space for people of all different backgrounds to develop the foundation for an inclusive work environment.
Create an open, yet controlled dialogue: Include everyone in the conversation, but establish clear boundaries. When you start getting into language that violates policies -- like what happened with Google -- then you’ve gone beyond the limit.
Embed diversity and inclusion by default: All people-facing processes need to consider diversity, inclusion, and equality for all employees. It starts with your HR team, but it is up to managers and leadership to ensure inclusivity in all aspects of managing a workforce.
By looking at talent and diversity and inclusion through this lens, the tech industry can make legitimate strides forward. Inclusion is an issue at a national level, not just in the tech industry, but enlightened companies have the opportunity to create positive change by fostering open and productive dialogues and inclusivity across their organizations.
Nithya Das serves as Chief Legal and People Officer of AppNexus, overseeing the company's global corporate, commercial, intellectual property and regulatory legal affairs, as well as stewarding its talent and culture. Das serves as the chair of the Diversity & Inclusion Steering Committee.