A Google employee’s screed against workplace diversity has thrust company executives into a tight spot: Discipline the author and risk criticism that Google is censoring speech, or stand by and inflame concerns that the company does not welcome women, an issue that is already the source of internal debate and a government investigation.
The 10-page missive was posted on an internal discussion board and went viral inside, and outside, the company Friday and Saturday. The document cited purported principles of evolutionary psychology to argue that women make up only 20 percent of Google’s technical staff because they are more interested in people rather than ideas, which the author considers an obstacle to being a good engineer. The author, a man, said Google’s liberal leanings and emphasis on training around “unconscious bias” have created an ideological echo chamber that make it difficult to discuss these issues openly inside the company.
The post sparked an internal and external uproar, with many Google employees shedding their traditional deference to the company’s confidentiality agreement to criticize the memo, and their employer, on social media.
Google’s new vice president of diversity and inclusion posted a response late Saturday that only seemed to underscore the internal tension. “Like many of you, I found that (the post) advanced incorrect assumptions about gender,” wrote Danielle Brown, in a company-wide memo first reported by Gizmodo. At the same time, she added, “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 declined additional comment.
Nicole Sanchez, the recently departed head of diversity at GitHub, understands the tension. “I guarantee this is the struggle they have inside the company: people who want to come out really strong against this manifesto and say there isn’t a place for this at Google,” she tells WIRED, while still maintaining “that an opinion shouldn’t jeopardize your job.”
“How do we ride that line that by law you are entitled to your opinions and write whatever you want but the culture we are trying to build does not support these ideas?” says Sanchez. “What you end up getting when something finally comes out is a such a compromise, a Frankenstein monster of a statement. Everyone got what they wanted and no one got everything they wanted.”
The controversial memo landed amid national debates over the limits of free speech and tensions within Silicon Valley over the role of women in tech companies, where most engineers, and top executives, are men. Speeches by political conservatives have been disrupted or blocked on many campuses. At the same time, several prominent venture capitalists have resigned their posts in recent months, following allegations that they harassed employees or entrepreneurs seeking funding. Google itself is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor, which says it has found evidence of a gender gap in pay.
The post also drew some supportive comments on discussion boards for Google employees, underscoring that executives may alienate significant numbers of employees – and users – no matter what their response.
Activists say Google’s response to the memo will demonstrate the company’s commitment to diversity. “Google can claim they value inclusion but this is a test of whether or not their values actually have any teeth,” Erica Baker, a former Google employee and cofounder of Project Include, tells WIRED. “If they choose not to take measure against someone who has gone out of their way to make a large percentage of their coworkers feel excluded, then their inaction will speak much more loudly than their words have.”
Elizabeth Ames, the senior vice president of marketing, alliances, and programs at the Anita Borg Institute, which aims to advance women in technology, says tech companies historically have been reluctant to fire bad actors. “For years whenever anybody stepped forward with sexual harassment allegations, did anybody get fired? Not so much. Now we’re seeing at least some people held to account,” says Ames. She believes the author should be fired for creating a “very divisive issue” inside the company.
The author of the memo took particular aim Google’s recent emphasis on unconscious bias training, effectively claiming that hiring women and minorities is lowering the bar and he should be free to say that.
Even some Google employees who support the company’s diversity efforts wonder whether the company’s internal documents may have emboldened the memo’s author. Tim Chevalier, a Google engineer, says one internal document for reviewing prospective hires specifies that Google is not lowering the bar by hiring more women. The comment “came off as defensive and conceding ground,” he says.