The lesson of the Google firing for innovation

In an era of slow productivity, companies need greater diversity of thought to innovate. Workers who stereotype people and their qualities by sex only put limits on diversity of thinking.

The Google logo is pictured atop an office building in Irvine, California, U.S., August 7.

Just days after Google fired an engineer for writing a memo that stereotypes women for traits that allegedly hinder innovation, Americans received a federal report about their pace of innovation reflected in the workplace. The productivity of nonfarm workers grew at an annualized rate of only 0.9 percent. That’s far lower than the historic highs of the 20th century. And it is lower than the 1.2 percent average over the period of 2007 to 2016.

The United States must do better in boosting its inventiveness, efficiency, and investment in ideas. Here’s why: “If labor productivity grows an average of 2 percent per year, average living standards for our children’s generation will be twice what we experienced,” Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer said in a July speech.

The Google firing was perhaps good timing. It may help elevate the debate over what can lift the limits on the kind of innovation that drives higher productivity, especially outside places like Silicon Valley, Boston, New York, and Seattle.

Stereotyping a person or a whole group of people does not help, especially if such labeling is rooted in biological determinism. Women, for example, should not be penalized by an employer or a fellow worker who believes they are especially likely to leave the workforce if they have children.

Innovation in today’s industries thrives on a diversity of thought and values, beyond the traditional model of a lone genius. Yet the thoughts expressed in meetings, memos, or hiring practices must not limit the inherent qualities of others. Pegging a person’s skills and talents based on sex  runs a high risk. It can hinder thinking by ignoring an individual’s particular traits – or ability to acquire a greater diversity of traits.

In addition, the variety of attributes commonly divided into feminine or masculine is necessary for a workplace to be innovative. It stirs discussion in new directions or allows a company to be more sensitive to the needs of diverse customers and clients.

Men and women can possess a mix of those traits. An employer’s task is to find the right blend and balance – without discriminating by sex. To hire or promote a man or woman based on sex only adds to the possible limits on innovation.

The Google firing will linger on as either a lawsuit or as a controversy over free speech in private companies. But for the sake of innovation and higher productivity, it should also provide valuable lessons on the need to lift mental limitations in the workplace.

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