The Google memo that couldn’t

As he sacked James Damore, Sundar Pichai put a lid on the argument saying that he crossed the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in the workplace.

Written by Shruti Dhapola | Updated: August 18, 2017 7:35 pm
google, google memo, james damore, google anti diversity memo, Google engineer James Damore, google ex employee, James Damore’s memo goes on to claim that while women are more attached to people, men are to things, or objects.

“Can biology explain why women aren’t leading the tech world?” That was the crux of the much discussed, debated and hated ‘Google memo’ by the recently sacked Google engineer James Damore. The “anti-diversity” memo has naturally left most women at Google and elsewhere angry.

Nobody wants a mansplainer on gender. Damore has said in the memo that he’s not against diversity, nor does he claim that “society is 100% fair, that we shouldn’t try to correct for existing biases, or that minorities have the same experience of those in the majority.”

But a lot of the memo reads like, “I’m not against diversity, but…” Sort of how people start by explaining why they don’t hate feminism, then proceed on a rant session against the very subject.

The memo says, “I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership.” Forget tech and leadership, this biology bit is something we can extend to most other fields also.

As most Indian women will agree, we’ve heard countless such biology-based arguments from our families, irrespective of whether there’s any science to support them. Arguments explaining why the brother’s likely to be better at maths or science, while the girl should stick with arts or commerce – that too, if she’s really being ambitious.

Imagine listening to this as you grow up and accepting this as a foregone conclusion. No amount of actual talent can compensate for this kind of social conditioning.

Damore’s memo goes on to claim that while women are more attached to people, men are to things, or objects. Really. And that women can’t handle stress as well as men. Although he admits that the differences are small and there’s significant overlap, “so you can’t say anything about an individual given these population level distributions.” Oh ok. Why claim them, then?

As all hell broke loose when Damore’s memo was released last week, Google CEO Sundar Pichai was forced to respond. Damore got sacked, of course, which is perhaps the one good thing that seems to have come out of this sordid debate. Pichai firmly put a lid on the anthromorphic argument, saying that parts of it violated the “Code of Conduct and cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.”

Pichai also pointed out that Damore’s argument about some people having traits that make them less biologically suited to that work “is offensive and not OK…” This is a fairly strong statement coming from the CEO of one of the world’s biggest technology companies. While a New York Times column might have asked for Pichai’s resignation on the way he handled this, (apparently firing Damore was not the right thing to do), the CEO’s response makes it very clear where Google stands on this whole agenda.

Frankly that’s good to see, instead of how companies usually respond to such issues, which is try and brush them under the carpet in the first place.

“The memo has clearly impacted our co-workers, some of whom are hurting and feel judged based on their gender. Our co-workers shouldn’t have to worry that each time they open their mouths to speak in a meeting, they have to prove that they are not like the memo states, being ‘agreeable’ rather than ‘assertive,’ showing a ‘lower stress tolerance,’ or being ‘neurotic’,” reads Pichai’s statement.

In fact, these stereotypes are associated with women, which Pichai notes, are not limited to Google or those working in a Silicon Valley company. They extend globally, and to argue this is all biology is laughable.

The problems of pay gap or lack of better women’s representation is a trend across industries. In India for instance, the idea that women workers, in the white or blue collar industry, will just get married and eventually have a baby remains a dominant theme. No steps are taken to examine and fix such issues, or make it easier for women to come back to work after having a baby. In the world’s largest democracy, the “who will hire women problem,” is a very real bogey.

And just because several women continue to believe in and willingly perpetuate such ideas doesn’t make it any less sexist or regressive.

To ignore the social construct when discussing gender parity seems like a deliberate deflection. Just read Susan J Fowler’s blog post on how she spent her year at Uber (http://www.susanjfowler.com/blog/2017/2/19/reflecting-on-one-very-strange-year-at-uber), where sexual harassment was rampant and the number of women in the engineering department was only 3% when she quit a year later. Clearly, women’s capabilities in engineering had no bearing on their success thanks to the raging ‘bro code’ culture and uncurbed sexual harassment.

Certainly, Fowler’s is not the only horror tale to come out of Silicon Valley and other tech startups.

It would be irresponsible to ignore social constructs and structures, including corporate ones, when examining lack of diversity in the workplace. To claim they have minimal influence in deciding where women or even minority groups end up on the payscale or work ladder isn’t just being naive or ideologically different. It is plain misleading.

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