On August 7, Google sacked James Damore, a Harvard University alumnus who had been at the company for four years. Last week, Damore had circulated an internal memo that was shared widely in Silicon Valley, accusing the company of perpetuating an “ideological echo chamber” which sidelines conservative views in its pursuit of gender equality. Damore went on to assert that women are “biologically less suited” to working in the tech industry than men, causing uproar.

The demographic makeup of Silicon Valley

The fact that fewer women than men work in Silicon Valley has long been considered a stain on the industry by equality activists. Although the situation has begun to improve in recent years with the appointment of Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook and Susan Wojcicki taking the position of CEO at YouTube, it remains the case that just 31% of Google’s employees are female.

Demographics are not the only issue, with salary differentials between the sexes also proving a bone of contention. Indeed, Google itself is currently the subject of wage discrimination investigation by the US Department of Labor, which seeks to understand why women at Google are regularly paid less than men working in similar roles.

Damore’s memo dropped like a bombshell into the midst of Google’s soul searching. He contended that women’s underrepresentation in the tech industry owes less to systemic, discriminatory bias in favour of men, and more to innate psychological differences between the sexes, such as women having a lower tolerance for stress. “We need to stop assuming that gender gaps imply sexism,” he wrote.

Damore also attacked Google for being “extreme and authoritarian” in its attempts to deal with gender disparity, “extreme [in the belief that] all disparities in representation are due to oppression, [and authoritarian in that Google] should discriminate to correct for this oppression. “He concludes that this “discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business.”

Credit: NY Times

Mixed responses

At Google, reaction to Damore’s memo and subsequent dismissal has reportedly been mixed. Tech journalism website Motherboard quotes two unnamed Google employees who were both unequivocal in their support of Damore’s memo. A few even went so far as to call him “brave”, according to the website.

One anonymous interviewee stated earlier in the week, “the fact that colleagues are calling for him to be fired … proves his point that there is an ideological silo and that they want dissenting opinions to be silenced.” However, other employees such as Torrey Hoffman tweeted: “I work at Google. The internal response to the doc ranges from anger & disgust, to sadness.”

Google moved to limit the damage on Monday by sacking Damore. Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, cut short his family holiday in order to return to Google HQ to sort out the mess. In a post on Google’s corporate blog he noted that although “we strongly support the right of Googlers to express themselves, and much of what was in that memo is fair to debate … portions of the memo violate our Code of Conduct and cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.

“To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK,” he concluded.

Grounds for dismissal?

From a business or man-management perspective it is hard to argue with Pichai’s decision. Stating publicly that 31% of the company’s workforce are psychologically unsuited to their jobs creates a toxic atmosphere within the company. One cannot but sympathise with any woman confronted with such an email, constantly looking over her shoulder, wondering whether others doubt her capacity to be in the position she is.

Nevertheless, Damore plans to fight his dismissal on legal grounds. “Despite what the public response seems to have been, I’ve gotten many personal messages from fellow Googlers expressing their gratitude for bringing up those very important issues which they agree with but would never have the courage to say or defend because of our shaming culture and the possibility of getting fired,” Mr. Damore added to his original memo in the wake of his dismissal. “This needs to change.”

The Wider Debate

The issue, involving as it does one of the world’s biggest companies, is politically explosive. Breitbart were quick to label the sacking a free speech issue, denouncing the sacking as an example of “social justice warriors” at Google silencing opinion, and Wikileaks editor Julian Assange was quick to publicly offer Damore a job.

Silicon Valley faces a major challenge to encourage women into the tech industry whilst still maintaining the open, questioning workplace environment that has fostered so much innovation. It is nigh on impossible to achieve equality without appearing to discriminate against the present majority. James Damore’s memo is a symptom of the alienation that some Google employees are clearly feeling. Google must decide whether “equality at any cost” is a strategy worth pursuing.

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