Already under federal investigation for allegedly paying its female employees less than their male counterparts, Google was hit with another allegation of discrimination over the weekend. A male software engineer at the company accused it in an internal memo of having an “ideological echo chamber” that silenced conservatives and blocked debate over its efforts to promote diversity.
The anonymous engineer’s memo quickly spread online, triggering a vigorous, even outraged debate over Google’s policies. If Google was actually trying to squelch a free and open exchange of ideas, this particular Googler has engineered a way around it.
Granted, much of the debate seems to be over the memo writer’s views about why women hold such a small percentage of the leadership jobs, not his opinion that “Google’s left bias has created a politically correct monoculture that maintains its hold by shaming dissenters into silence.” Although he insisted that he shares the goal of a more diverse workplace, he argued that part of the blame for the gender gap in hiring and promotion was a function of uncorrectable chromosomal differences, including an innate inability or disinclination among women to handle the stress that comes with leadership.
Naturally, that triggered the sort of outrage that gender stereotypes usually produce, and rightfully so. Hiring and promotion decisions, after all, are about individuals, not statistical averages. Imagine the reaction if a woman argued that older men were underrepresented in some female-dominated field because they need too many bathroom breaks.
On one front, though, the Googleplex’s current top provocateur is right: No company’s leadership should be afraid to reexamine the methods it’s using to achieve its goals, whether that be turning a profit, recruiting a great workforce or having a healthy corporate culture. You’d think that Silicon Valley, with its meritocratic posturing and its fetish for disruption, would be particularly open to ideas that come from outside the mainstream.
(After this editorial went to press Monday, Bloomberg reported that Google had fired the memo writer, identified as James Damore. Google CEO Sundar Pichai told employees in an email that the memo violated the company’s Code of Conduct “and cross[ed] the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace,” the news service reported. Clearly, there are some ideas from outside the mainstream that Google will not even debate internally.)
Google’s hiring and promotion practices have come under scrutiny because, like much of the tech industry, the company’s workforce looks little like the world around it. Almost 70% of its employees are male, including 80% of its technical workers. Only 2% of its workers are African American. As the Guardian pointed out Monday, the lack of racial diversity typifies Silicon Valley, but not other U.S. tech hubs.
Google insists that it is committed to reducing these gaps, even though it has resisted the U.S. Department of Labor’s efforts to collect detailed payroll data in its probe of alleged pay disparities (after a court sided with Google, the company turned over a much more limited data set). Ultimately, the goals it sets and the methods it chooses are up to the company’s leadership, overseen by those who enforce anti-discrimination laws and by the market.
The disgruntled software engineer seemed more concerned about Google’s efforts to train more women and minorities to become engineers than about the shortage of women and minorities entering the field. The former isn’t the problem — the latter is. But at least he has demonstrated how easy it is to foster a debate over Google’s goals and methods, at least outside the top offices of the Googleplex.
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8:38 a.m.: The editorial was updated with new information about the memo-writer’s firing.
This editorial was orginally published at 5 a.m. Tuesday.