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You are here: Home / Government / Google and the Tech Culture Wars
Google Gender Debacle Speaks to Tech Culture Wars
Google Gender Debacle Speaks to Tech Culture Wars
By Barbara Ortutay Like this on Facebook Tweet this Link thison Linkedin Link this on Google Plus
The Google engineer who blamed biological differences for the paucity of women in tech had every right to express his views. And Google likely had every right to fire him, workplace experts and lawyers say.

Special circumstances -- from the country's divisive political climate to Silicon Valley's broader problem with gender equity -- contributed to the outrage and subsequent firing. But the fallout should still serve as a warning to anyone in any industry expressing unpopular, fiery viewpoints.

"Anyone who makes a statement like this and expects to stick around ... is foolish," said David Lewis, CEO of Operations Inc., a human resources consulting firm.

Why He Lost His Job

The engineer, James Damore, wrote a memo criticizing Google for pushing mentoring and diversity programs and for "alienating conservatives." The parts that drew the most outrage made such assertions as women "prefer jobs in social and artistic areas" and have a "lower stress tolerance" and "harder time" leading, while more men "may like coding because it requires systemizing."

Google's code of conduct says workers "are expected to do their utmost to create a workplace culture that is free of harassment, intimidation, bias, and unlawful discrimination." Google's CEO, Sundar Picahi, said Damore violated this code.

Yonatan Zunger, who recently left Google as a senior engineer, wrote in a Medium post that he would have had no choice but to fire Damore had he been his supervisor.

"Do you understand that at this point, I could not in good conscience assign anyone to work with you?" he wrote . "I certainly couldn't assign any women to deal with this, a good number of the people you might have to work with may simply punch you in the face."

Though one might argue for a right to free speech, however unpopular, such protections are generally limited to government and other public employees -- and to unionized workers with rights to disciplinary hearings before any firing.

Broader protections are granted to comments about workplace conditions. Damore argues in a federal labor complaint that this applies to his case, but experts disagree.

"By posting that memo, he forfeited his job," said Jennifer Lee Magas, public relations professor at Pace University and a former employment law attorney. "He was fired for his words, but also for being daft enough to post these thoughts on an open workplace forum, where he was sure to be met with backlash and to offend his colleagues -- male and female alike."

Uniquely Google

The fallout comes as Silicon Valley faces a watershed moment over gender and ethnic diversity.

Blamed for years for not hiring enough women and minorities -- and not welcoming them once they are hired -- tech companies such as Google, Facebook and Uber have promised big changes. These have included diversity and mentoring programs and coding classes for groups underrepresented among the companies' technical and leadership staff. Many tech companies also pledge to interview, though not necessarily hire, minority candidates.

These are the sorts of things Damore's memo railed against.

As such, experts say Damore might not have been fired at a company that doesn't have such a clear message on diversity.

In addition, had Damore worked for a smaller, lesser-known company, an internal memo might not have created such a "media storm," said Aimee Delaney, a Hinshaw & Culbertson attorney who represents companies on labor matters.

A Different World

Still, bringing so much public, negative attention would spell trouble for any worker. That's especially so in this age of fast-spreading social media posts, when internal company documents can easily leak and go viral.

It didn't help that this was in the heart of Silicon Valley, where typing fingers are on 24/7 and people rarely disconnect from social media, even on a quiet August weekend. Or that Google is a brand consumers interact with all day -- and want to read about when memos go viral.

Perhaps the biggest lesson is this: Don't be so quick to post your angry thoughts for thousands, then millions, to see.

Michael Schmidt, vice chairman of labor and employment at the Cozen O'Connor law firm, said that while workers might have refrained from such remarks around the physical watercooler, "people treat ... electronic communications much more informally than face-to-face speech."

But the consequences are similar, if not more severe.

Explosive Climate

Initially shared on an internal Google network, the memo leaked out to the public over the weekend, first in bits and pieces and then in its 10-page entirety.

It took a life of its own as outsiders weighed in. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange took to Twitter to offer Damore a job. One conservative group, Americans for Limited Government, criticized what it called Google's politically correct culture and left-wing bias. Others called for a Google boycott.

Known for its motto, "don't be evil," Google is broadly seen as a liberal-leaning company, something Damore criticized in his manifesto. Liberals and tech industry leaders came to Google's defense and denounced Damore's claims as baseless and harmful.

"It's fair to say that whatever side of the political aisle you are on, ... we are in a climate where we are dealing with very highly charged and emotional issues," Schmidt said. "And those issues are spilling into the workplace."

Instead of looking for a bright-line test on what is permissible, he said, "both sides need to understand there has to be a sensitivity to the bigger picture," a level of respect and cultural sensitivity across all demographics.

© 2017 Associated Press under contract with NewsEdge/Acquire Media. All rights reserved.

Image credit: iStock.

Tell Us What You Think


Posted: 2017-08-17 @ 9:43am PT
@A ivics: Thanks for the feedback. Please consider though that this article was published Aug 11. Your comment was from several days later, and during that time, additional facts evolved, such as the employee filing suit against Google. It wasn't a matter of lack of research, just developing news. Click on some of the 'read more on' topics above, and you'll find more news on the story as it develops.

A ivics-loving American:
Posted: 2017-08-14 @ 12:43pm PT
Ummm ... it wasn't just a forum post.

I cannot believe this article did no research into the matter. This includes how the former employee is now suing Google, and under what California rule.

This article also asserts things that were not true, and ignored related facts. This is such as how the poster approached the Memo, and how long it was passed around the company.

This article is just as guilty of what it claims the alleged ex-employee is ... firing-from-the-hip.

Tom Graham:
Posted: 2017-08-14 @ 12:37pm PT
Google can fire or hire anyone they want, this is not a freedom of speech issue. This is a fraud issue, and Google is the fraudster.

How, exactly, is someone supposed "to do their utmost to create a workplace culture that is free of harassment, intimidation, bias, and unlawful discrimination" in a climate so closed minded?

Google encourages employees to contribute "out of the box thinking" on every project they work on. The ex-employee saw Google's hiring and recruitment practices and feared they might be illegal and brought that to Google's attention, at the same time expressed the scientific reasons that he felt that Google's employee sex and nationality mix should reflect the Actual Application Pool of people who have chosen a career in IT and not the 50:50 men:women ratio of the general population. He then explained why more men than women choose to go into IT and why more men than women tend to go into high stress jobs which might explain the gender disparity in management and IT. But apparently now, citing psychological studies and evolutionary biology is deemed "progressing negative stereotypes."

Wake up Google snowflakes! Hens and Roosters ARE DIFFERENT BIOLOGICALLY! They do not learn their behavior socially. All sexually reproducing creatures have male and female tendencies. It is illogical and untruthful to claim that humans are so separate from nature that biology doesn't have any effect. The memo asks that we acknowledge that effect and move toward ways of addressing it. Google's management handled this inappropriately, and perhaps, depending on how their policies are worded, fraudulently.

Posted: 2017-08-14 @ 12:33pm PT
As a male who has worked in engineering for more than 20 years, I felt that many of Damore's observations were true. Women in engineering usually gravitate to functions such as project management that have more human interaction. And why not? They are often very good at it, and very appreciated for their contributions. Not too many women like the nitty gritty stuff. But if they do, no one resents that or tries to hold them back. We know from our extended families that women play a far different role in our social interactions. And, again, why not? One thing, though, women are a little sensitive and most men in the work place learn to do the rope a dope rather than speaking the unspeakable as this poor fellow did.

Koko Banes:
Posted: 2017-08-14 @ 12:23pm PT
Men exclusively play NFL football. Selection is based on physical, biological, and mental characteristics. Waitressing at Hooters is an exclusively female job, but not for any female. You have to have certain biological characteristics to get hired.

We could discuss the immorality of gender-exclusivity but the fact remains: biological characteristics form a large part of normal activity.

The problem with tech is at the higher levels of programming. The fact remains that most women are not dedicated to a 10x programmer's lifestyle from 1st grade on. Once you realize choices in early life impact later life it's too late.

No one can "wish" themselves onto an NFL team. No one can "dream" their way into Hooters. However, to create 10x jobs not only takes a long ramp but discussions on how to achieve it must be open to all manner of mind-state. Keep the discussions open and a solution occurs. Encouraging emotional reactions ... NOT!

Posted: 2017-08-14 @ 12:02pm PT
I think that the problem is: if someone expresses their freedom of speech against the unreasonable people in the politically correct world they should be subject to a company reprimand followed by a company expressing that they don't agree -- not always a knee-jerk life changing firing.

That sends the message that you don't "really" have freedom of speech -- unless, of course, it follows the liberal politically correct guidelines. Why do people that say: "Women and minorities deserve men's job's even if the men are more qualified..." get fired? Oh, I see –- because they are righteously "correct."

Jack Daniels:
Posted: 2017-08-14 @ 11:51am PT
"A good number of the people you might have to work with may simply punch you in the face."

Then they should be fired, not Damore. No one should punch someone for a differing opinion, and this one is based on science. No one's actually disputing Damore's views, only that he had the balls to express them by a company that encourages its employees to do so.

Posted: 2017-08-14 @ 11:50am PT
"Perhaps the biggest lesson is this: Don't be so quick to post your angry thoughts for thousands, then millions, to see."

No, the biggest lesson is companies like Google need to rewrite their policies about allowing free speech. This firing is clearly in the wrong. The memo circulated for a while without any issues until extrasensitive people in power blew it out of proportion.

Posted: 2017-08-14 @ 11:47am PT
Why not enough women in tech companies?

Go ask the women why they don't pick electric engineering or software engineering or computer science as major in college. Jesus Christ. Women make the choice and now they come back and ask company why they are not hired. Cause it is geeky and hard and no women want to be around geeks all day long. They rather go have fun.

Posted: 2017-08-14 @ 11:45am PT
Thinking women get a fair shake? Think again! It will be CENTURIES be4 women are treated even 50% like men...

Reality Bites:
Posted: 2017-08-13 @ 1:41pm PT
Google managers are a special kind of stupid... the kind that is visible from space.

Posted: 2017-08-12 @ 2:05pm PT
If Google really wants to make sure they're not discriminating, they'll do faceless interviews, without gender or nationality being able to be displayed/heard. They could develop the tech that would easily do that.

But no, because they don't want diversity, and they don't want the most qualified competent, they won't.

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