Troubling trend behind sexist memo at Google

The internet allows fringe groups to open for ‘debate’ topics that have long been settled, including Silicon Valley’s need to diversify its workforce.  

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A controversial memo from a now-fired employee at Google headquarters claimed that the lack of diversity at the Mountain View, Calif., company was at least partly based on biological differences between women and men.

When an internal memo from a Google engineer spread over the weekend arguing, among other things, that women are less suited to certain types of jobs due to biological reasons the prevalent early reaction online was one of disgust.

But not everyone was jeering.

James Damore’s 10-page “manifesto,” addressing a wide range of perceived problems with Google and Silicon Valley’s approach to fixing their well-known diversity issues, attracted support from some quarters, including from a segment of Google employees.

“The fella who posted that is extremely brave,” one anonymous worker commented on Google's internal thread, as reported by Motherboard. “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.”

That small but unified pocket of support for Mr. Damore highlights how much easier it is in the internet age for people to find validation for their ideas, and to amplify and legitimize even damaging, fringe viewpoints. On its face, the idea that women can’t do certain jobs because they are women is categorically unacceptable; this week, it’s an argument.

“What’s real, factual, empirical is apparently up for debate,” says Kara Van Cleaf, a sociologist and visiting lecturer at Monmouth University who studies gender, labor, and technology. “People feel freer to voice such ideas. It [seemed] like the narrative that men are biologically different (i.e. ‘better) than women had abated a bit in recent years, but it was right under the surface.”

The phenomenon is a blow to techno-optimists who hoped that internet-fostered communication would lead to greater understanding and a sense of interconnection, even among people who disagreed. It also points to the slow progress that Silicon Valley is making in terms of diversity.

The clear majority of online responders labeled Damore’s memo as sexist and wrong. He accused the company of an ideological sameness that stifled free speech and the possibility for real change. But he also based much of his argument on the idea that women are underrepresented at the company not because of discrimination, but because, among other things, they’re more empathizers than systematizers and have higher levels of neuroticism and anxiety that make them naturally ill-suited for certain jobs.

“I experienced this [attitude] at Google, and was frustrated that they did nothing about rhetoric that was harming employees,” Kelly Ellis, a software engineer, wrote on Twitter about the ideas in the memo. 

“To be clear, it went viral because 99% of people wanted to comment about how unsupported/wrong/hurtful the doc was,” another Twitter user wrote. 

Google fired Damore for violating the company’s code of conduct. “Part of building an open, inclusive environment means fostering a culture in which those with alternative views, including different political views, feel safe sharing their opinions,” Google chief executive Sundar Pichai said in a statement. “But that discourse needs to work alongside the principles of equal employment found in our Code of Conduct, policies, and anti-discrimination laws.”

Damore is suing Google. And his supporters are angry.

“So diversity and inclusion actually means that having a divergent opinion results in exclusion? That’s the very definition of hypocrisy,” one wrote.

The passionate response to the memo on both sides underscores just how fraught Silicon Valley’s efforts to address its inequalities are – inequalities that exist elsewhere in the working world, but not in nearly such a public way. The tech industry has been at the forefront of offering benefits like long parental leaves, and the biggest companies, including Google and Facebook, have made their percentages of women and minorities public since 2014.

But progress has been slow. According to Google’s latest public report, released in June, just 20 percent of the company’s tech workers are women, and 25 percent of those in leadership positions. Damore’s memo, and its support, are yet another public setback in the industry’s quest for improving its reputation for inclusivity. 

“I used to work in the tech industry, so I wasn’t at all surprised at the memo, or that it proved to be popular with people who work at Google and beyond,” says Jessie Daniels, a sociology professor at Hunter College who studies racism and technology. “There was an informal survey of Google employees going around that showed around a third supported the ideas. That seems about right to me, if a little low.”  

Ms. Daniels researches the way that long-discredited, discriminatory ideas are reinvigorated and spread online. “The internet lets anyone connect around their identity,” she says.

 ”The people who have a hard-core belief in white nationalism saw the potential of the internet early on,” Daniels says. “They’ve used it to spread their ideology, gain support for their ideas, to change the narrative, and to connect with one another.”

She says portions of Damore’s memo, though focused on gender, “could have come from one of the white nationalist sites I study.” A common tactic, she notes, is taking topics that were considered closed, like slavery being a bad thing, and opening them up again for the sake of debate. “The legitimizing and amplifying of racism and misogyny are baked into the technology,” she says.

But that doesn’t mean that the tribalism enabled by the internet is entirely a bad thing, Ms. Van Cleaf notes.

If it’s easier for racists and misogynists to find each other online, it’s also easier for people who have experienced racism and misogyny to seek each other out and find validation. She points to the popularizing of the term “mansplaining,” which refers to men lecturing women in a patronizing way. “What a revelation to have a label for that experience!” she says. “Women everywhere encounter and deal with mansplainers. The internet helps us see racism and misogyny in action – and that is good if we can call it out.” 

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