What Google’s Memo Controversy Means for Gender Diversity

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Wharton's Americus Reed and Samir Nurmohamed discuss the fallout from James Damore's memo at Google.

In the past week, the debate around gender equality and ideological diversity at the workplace has become more intense. The trigger is a 10-page internal memo that Google software engineer James Damore wrote last month, in which he attempted to explain his contrarian positions on those issues.

Damore’s observations that biological and other gender-based differences explain why women may not have equal representation in technology and leadership roles were considered egregious enough for Google CEO Sundar Pichai to fire him on August 7, three days after the memo went viral on social media. In his memo, Damore argued that Google should review its diversity programs and that its “ideological echo chambers” engender “moral biases” against a section of employees — sparking a debate across Silicon Valley and beyond.

Will the fallout over Damore’s memo advance the cause of gender equality? “We’ve still got a long way to go,” said Wharton management professor Laura Huang. “This is a step in the right direction, but there is so much that is implicit.” According to Wharton professor of management Samir Nurmohamed, the Google episode “reflects the culture in Silicon Valley,” and Damore’s memo “started a conversation around diversity and bias.” He noted that companies like Google and Uber “have been struggling with issues such as inclusion and gender diversity.”

According to Wharton professor of management and psychology Adam Grant, Damore was plain wrong in his assumptions concerning gender inequality. “It’s time to stop making mountains out of molehills. If men are from Mars, it looks like women are, too,” Grant wrote on LinkedIn.

Wharton marketing professor Americus Reed agreed that Damore’s views on women were offensive, but he also felt that Google may have acted too hastily. He advocated “a more measured approach” where the objective is not to punish Damore “in a binary way” but to learn from the episode and keep the conversation going, and “not squash alternative ideological perspectives” within the company.

(Reed and Nurmohamed discussed the Damore memo and its repercussions on the Knowledge@Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

Examining the Memo

Many of Damore’s justifications for why women may face inequality came in for severe criticism. “Neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance) … may contribute to the higher levels of anxiety women report … and to the lower number of women in high stress jobs,” he wrote. “Drawing a line from this to women’s suitability for tech jobs is puerile,” The Economist argued. (Damore told CNBC on Monday that he regretted using the word “neuroticism” to describe female engineers.) Damore also said in his memo that women are “more interested in people than things,” to which The Economist responded, “If this were true, they would in fact be better than men at the senior software-engineering jobs that involve managing teams.”

“There are so many people who aren’t able to speak up, even if they wanted to, because the reality is that speaking up causes waves, and waves crush careers.” –Laura Huang

Damore also attempted to explain why Google’s programs to advance gender and racial diversity could prove counterproductive. “The overwhelming majority of humanities and social sciences lean left (about 95%), which creates enormous confirmation bias, changes what’s being studied, and maintains myths like social constructionism and the gender wage gap,” he wrote. “Google’s left leaning makes us blind to this bias and uncritical of its results, which we’re using to justify highly politicized programs.” He ended his note with a list of suggestions for Google, with subtitles such as “Demoralize diversity,” “De-emphasize empathy” and “Be open about the science of human nature.”

In his LinkedIn article, Grant responded to Damore’s arguments. “When it comes to abilities, attitudes and actions, sex differences are few and small,” he wrote, citing meta-analyses as evidence.

Empowering Women

Huang dismissed Damore’s reference to ideological echo chambers. “I think he’s just trying to sound smart,” she said. “He’s trying to make a point that sounds good. That’s different from making a point that is actually a good one.”

If anything needs fixing, it would be empowering women at the workplace to express themselves fearlessly, according to Huang. “In most cases, there isn’t a system set up to protect those who speak up,” she said. “The reality is that in most of these cases, speaking up causes a major backlash. There are so many people who aren’t able to speak up, even if they wanted to, because the reality is that speaking up causes waves, and waves crush careers.”

Such an environment could be especially painful in some cases, Huang noted. “Think about women whose funding and livelihood depend on VCs who control critical resources that they need; women whose tenure cases are decided by a panel of senior colleagues; women who rely on income from their superiors to support their families — the risk-reward tradeoffs are just misaligned.”

The Damore memo episode is just one among “a string of incidents that has been plaguing the tech industry and the entrepreneurial investment community,” said Huang. “These issues have been around for years, but it is only now that they have come to a head and we are seeing more and more people speaking out.”

Google’s Response

Could Google have handled its response better than it did in this controversy? Huang felt the company had few options. “Taking a neutral stance is the same as a silent endorsement,” she pointed out. “Innumerable people can recall experiencing something like this — including myself — where organizations have done nothing. That is somehow just as bad as the incident itself — feeling like you are part of an organization that doesn’t support you. So it was important for Google to take a hard stance and show its employees what it stands for.”

Reed, however, expressed some doubt about the wisdom of Google’s response. “Is this reaction the correct one, to move so quickly and so swiftly?” he asked. Google needs to also weigh the implications of its response from a marketing perspective, he added. “Essentially, you are marketing your brand to your employees. You’re basically signaling to them, ‘What are the values we espouse in this company, and what are the values we expect you to align yourself with, in the assumption of being an employee of this organization?’”

According to Nurmohamed, “it’s not a binary choice” in deciding if Damore had to be fired immediately or allowed to stay on his job without any punishment whatsoever. He talked of “restorative justice” as an alternative, where an organization would look beyond the offender or the perpetrator of a violation. Also, it might help to focus not just on the perpetrator, but also on the immediate victims of Damore’s utterances, and the broader community. “There might have been a way to restore some of those relationships,” he noted.

“It should spark a conversation. It shouldn’t be shut down. If this individual is basing his views on incorrect information, let’s correct it and give him the right perspective, and let’s see what happens.” –Americus Reed

To be sure, Damore’s memo contained “offensive and inaccurate” remarks, and “lacked a lot of emotional intelligence, too,” said Nurmohamed. “But there were points in there that he was trying to make to start a conversation, and there were signals in that memo that this guy potentially could have been reached.”

“I really worry about this idea of squashing perspectives so quickly without thinking through how do we turn this into something positive and a teachable moment for people within the organization,” said Reed. “The outcome, or the consequence, of shutting this down quickly [firing Damore], even though it might appease some folks who are outraged, makes the problem worse, because now more people go underground and that ideological diversity is less likely to happen.”

Indeed, Pichai acknowledged in his note to employees that “much of what was in [Damore’s] memo is fair to debate.” But he also pointed out that portions of it violated Google’s code of conduct. “They cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace,” he added.

Meanwhile, Damore has his supporters. A day after he was fired, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange offered a job to Damore in a tweet, and said, “Women [and] men deserve respect. That includes not firing them for politely expressing ideas but rather arguing back.”

Managing the Fallout

The controversy has had its share of collateral damage. For one, it has fueled calls for Pichai to resign. “He could have stood up for the free flow of information. Instead he joined the mob,” wrote New York Times columnist David Brooks, and that was echoed by others including USA Today columnist Glenn Harlan Reynolds. Another was the cancellation of a companywide town hall meeting last Thursday that Pichai had convened to discuss the Damore issue. He explained in an email that some proposed questions by Google employees had “appeared externally” and some employees feared for their safety if they were “outed publicly” for asking a question, according to a Wired magazine report.

According to Reed, the Google brand itself might be under “some pressure” in the wake of the latest controversy. Nurmohamed noted that what was intended to be an internal company debate is now being debated externally as well with the online leak of Damore’s memo. “Among those debating it are computer science programmers that are considering Google as an employer,” he said.

Reed said Google has to be very careful in terms of how it manages its brand. “People don’t choose to use Google out of some deep, emotional connection. That’s just what you use; it’s part of the vernacular, I go Google stuff and it is built into your life,” he said. “So when the brand is not being emotionally chosen, you have to be really careful about what it starts getting associated with.” That may have been part of the reason for “such a fast response to internal and probably external pressure to do something,” he added.

Reed listed three tenets for companies that are grappling with a brand crisis. “One is you have to validate concerns. That doesn’t necessarily mean saying sorry, but it means that you are empathetic to how people are feeling and reacting to different perspectives,” he said. “Secondly, it is important to show some action, put some teeth around policy that addresses those concerns. The third important aspect, for the brand, is to control the narrative, and to make sure that you are proactively out there, and not allowing others to fill the space associated with what might be negative perceptions as this movement starts [getting] more and more traction in the marketplace.” He thought Google has done “an OK job” on those three dimensions.

“Google not only needs to control the narrative, but also control the narrative on what the expectations are for when this [gender] gap will change.”  –Samir Nurmohamed

According to Nurmohamed, Google’s management must create an “organizational leadership context” that unambiguously states that it welcomes all perspectives, facts and feelings. If that context is not provided, “a siloed, ideological point of view” emerges, which is “really bad,” he said. “That could enable competitors [to say that they] allow more diverse perspectives and encourage more community-building through having these conversations and not shutting them down in a draconian way.”

Reed agreed with Nurmohamed, and said, “It should spark a conversation. It shouldn’t be shut down. If this individual is basing his views on incorrect information, let’s correct it and give him the right perspective, and let’s see what happens.”

Bridging the Gap

Google’s latest diversity report shows that women make up only 31% of its work force of more than 72,000 people (now counted as employees of its parent Alphabet, which was created in 2015). They occupy only 20% of the technology functions, and 25% of leadership roles.

Nurmohamed acknowledged that Google has been making efforts to address the gender gap within its organization, but he felt it could do more. “Google not only needs to control the narrative, but also control the narrative on what the expectations are for when this gap will change,” he said. Indeed, companies are accountable for what they say as well as what they don’t say, added Reed.

Despite the attention that the Damore memo episode has brought to gender diversity issues, Huang emphasizes that this is only a small step. “We can continue talking about the issues, but beliefs are hard to change — and there are some people whose beliefs we just will not ever be able to change,” she noted. She offered some advice: “Those who can speak up should. Don’t be neutral and don’t be silent — because that is like a silent endorsement. Stand up for yourself and others when you can, and when you can’t, don’t let others drive down your self-confidence and the self-belief that you belong and that you are capable.”

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