Google memo on diversity raises questions — like ‘Why?’

by | Aug 13, 2017 | Detroit Free Press, Comment | 0 comments

So I actually read the entire 10 page memo written by Google engineer James Damore, who began last week as an anonymous tech guy and ended it as globally infamous and, thanks to his memo, unemployed.

In his post, which has been called by many who never read it an insulting argument that women are not as biologically suited for tech jobs as men, he wrote this:

“Women on average show a higher interest in people…

“Women on average are more cooperative…

“Women on average look for more work-life balance…”

He also wrote this:

“I strongly believe in gender and racial diversity, and I think we should strive for more…

“I hope it’s clear that I’m not saying that diversity is bad, that Google or society is 100% fair, that we shouldn’t try to correct for existing biases…

“Thankfully, open and honest discussion with those who disagree can highlight our blind spots and help us grow…”

Did I mention he was fired?

Pieces of 10-page manifesto ignored

Not for those sentences. You likely never saw those sentences. But you couldn’t miss the ones citing biology on women’s tendencies, or criticizing diversity initiatives as potentially harmful, or arguing for more inclusiveness of conservative opinions. Those lines were reprinted — often out of context — in news stories around the world.

But Damore wasn’t fired for those sentences, either.

He was fired because they leaked.

Lord knows how many similar comments have been posted at tech companies that encourage internal dialogues. I imagine far worse things have been said.

But if the world doesn’t discover them, and the media doesn’t cherry-pick them, the outrage is limited, the lawyers don’t get involved, stock prices aren’t in danger.

And CEOs don’t fire the authors.

Which is what Google CEO Sundar Pichai did to Damore, interrupting a vacation to publicly dump the employee for “advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.”

Now, when I first read about Damore’s “manifesto”, I, too, was put off by the quotes. I find any suggestion that women are inferior workers to be offensive and dumb. When I read that Damore said, “Women on average are more prone to anxiety,” I immediately thought, “OK, another Neanderthal.”

But when I found that sentence in the actual memo, it was part of a long paragraph about women being more cooperative than men, and it was followed immediately by an actual suggestion to relieve anxiety: “Make tech and leadership less stressful.”

That is one of dozens of examples of ignored parts of Damore’s piece that, while not making it something to celebrate, do make it more than an Archie Bunker tech rant.

But who bothers to read 10 pages?

Enhanced communication has profound effect

Having actually done so, I still don’t agree with Damore’s conclusions about women. But he did write a long, complex, scientifically tinged piece about diversity initiatives. It wasn’t some half-baked Facebook post.

And while the question “Should he be fired for that?” isn’t for me to answer (I don’t run that company) another question seems worth asking: Why does Google have all these forums, chats, and internal suggestion entities in the first place?

Tech execs surely know that things written are not the same as things said. The printed word is less nuanced, more intractable and far more inflammatory. It also promotes long-windedness. The fact that Damore — a 28-year-old engineer, not a company policy maker — spent this much time writing this much copy that nobody asked for, about an initiative he’s not involved with, only confirms our new, misguided workplace belief that All Of Our Opinions Must Be Heard.

Not long ago, employees also had opinions of how to run the company, but manners kept them unspoken. Maybe in the cafeteria or carpool, you shared them. Then back to work.

Not anymore. Today’s workplaces, particularly start-ups and tech firms, offer immeasurable cyberspace for suggestions, comments, internal chatting. There are software programs like Slack, Yammer or HipChat devoted to employee engagement. “Give us your ideas!” is a mantra.

But if you invite that, you can’t be surprised by the results. Or the fact that with one button, your “internal” discussion goes around the world. Bill Gates once told a conference that any tool that enhances communication has profound effects on “how people can learn from each other.”

And insult each other.

So Google looks hypocritical in demanding diversity and open dialogue, then firing a worker for delving into both. And Damore may never find another job in tech. Critics claimed that, after his post, he would have been unable to work alongside women. Ironically, he’d been doing it for years. Maybe the real lesson here is less about a memo than the “send” button.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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