'Sexism at Google' debate misses important point

An anonymous worker says biological differences could explain tech's gender imbalance.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 15 Aug 2017

It’s hardly a secret that Silicon Valley has a gender diversity problem. The big firms make a great effort – and a great noise – to attract more women into tech and leadership positions, and to root out the ‘bro’ culture that exists in certain places.

Google must therefore have hated the public row that’s just broken over one its software engineers, James Kamore, who (at the time) anonymously posted a lengthy internal memo seemingly suggesting that biological differences explain why there isn’t equality for women in tech and leadership.

When I got up this morning, I was ready to savage this. That kind of unreformed male chauvinist view is exactly the kind of thing Management Today has spent years trying to fight against.

But then I actually read it, all 3,000 words. While I don't agree with it, it’s not exactly the Trumpian rant that it has been widely reported to be. I strongly suggest reading the original on Gizmodo, but here’s the gist:

1)      A diversity of viewpoints is just as valuable as a diversity of backgrounds.

2)      Google is intolerant of conservative viewpoints, especially on issues such as gender equality, seeking to silence dissenters through shame.

3)       This is harmful to psychological safety and misses many of the advantages of diversity in general.

4)      Google has made the assumption that bias and sexism are entirely responsible for the fact that women are underrepresented in tech and leadership.

5)      There are biological differences between men and women that may explain differences in traits, aptitudes and preferences.

6)      These differences may in turn in part explain the lack of 50-50 equality.

7)      Google uses positive discrimination to favour women through hiring objectives and then exclusive programmes within the company.

8)      This is unfair and harmful, and breeds resentment.

9)      Google should encourage women into tech and leadership through non-discriminatory means.

The poster’s material on gender is unhelpful, much of it comprising generalisations (women are more likely to demonstrate ‘extroversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness’ which ‘leads to women generally having a harder time negotiating salary’, don’t you know).

The fact that he makes a point of saying we should judge people as individuals, not members of a group, won’t have assuaged the rightful anger of his female colleagues. No one wants to be told they’re good at programming for a woman, after all.

That’s unfortunate, because it means no one will pay attention to the two things he did say that are actually worth hearing.

The first is around discrimination. Is it right to discriminate in favour of women (and therefore against men) in order to correct for deep-seated societal or cultural biases? If so, how much? Is 50:50 equality the goal, or is it organisational inclusivity? Will one automatically follow from the other? How would you measure inclusivity without looking at diversity statistics?

These are important questions that we should be debating. But perhaps of even greater importance is the poster’s central point, which was about diversity of viewpoints.

‘Google’s political bias has equated the freedom from offense with psychological safety, but shaming into silence is the antithesis of psychological safety. This silencing has created an ideological echo chamber where some ideas are too sacred to be honestly discussed,’ said the poster.

Sure enough, he has indeed unsurprisingly been silenced, both by Google itself (‘it’s not a viewpoint that I or this company endorses, promotes or encourages,’ wrote the firm’s new diversity chief Danielle Brown, without linking to it, but before Damore was fired) and more widely in the press and on social media.

Of course some views are not acceptable and organisations shouldn’t give them the time of day. But diversity of thought and opinion itself is extremely valuable. Our ‘moral biases’ matter too. While the conversation around diversity often focuses on your background or identity, the differences in personality or opinion within groups can be greater than between them.

We should spend more time thinking about how we understand difference and diversity, as well as questioning how we want to achieve fairness, inclusivity or equality. The fact that the person calling for it in this instance did so alongside unreformed views about gender and capability shouldn’t take away from that.

Image credit: Robert Scoble/Flickr

Read: How Facebook builds its culture


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