It’s been quite a week at Google. “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” a 10-page manifesto criticizing Google’s pro-diversity efforts, went viral inside the company last Friday. It was leaked to the public on Saturday. Its author, software engineer James Damore, was fired on Monday. After resulting online harassment of Google employees throughout the week, a planned all-hands town hall meeting inside Google was canceled on Thursday because, as CEO Sundar Pichai wrote in a letter to employees, “Googlers are writing in, concerned about their safety and worried they may be ‘outed’ publicly for asking a question in the Town Hall.”
Google was already under scrutiny on diversity issues, specifically its treatment of women. In April, as part of a wage-discrimination investigation by the Department of Labor, Regional Director Janette Wipper testified that “we found systemic compensation disparities against women pretty much across the entire workforce.” And The Guardian reported on Tuesday that, “More than 60 current and former Google employees are considering bringing a class-action lawsuit alleging sexism and pay disparities against women.”
So even when the furor over this particular memo dies down, that scrutiny won’t go away.
Nor should it.
Setting questions of damage control aside, “The most important question we should be asking of leaders at Google and that they should be asking of themselves is this: why is the environment at Google such that racists and sexists feel supported and safe in sharing these views in the company? What about the company culture sends the message that sharing sexism and racism will be accepted?” writes former Google engineer Erica Baker. “What has shaped the culture thus far, to get to this point? In short, Google leadership should do a post-mortem, a real one, on how the company got to this place where they’ve experienced such a catastrophic failure in their culture, assuming it is indeed viewed as such.”
The larger frame for these questions is the culture of U.S. society. The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, is pushing many to face these same questions about our country. How did we get here? What about our country’s culture sends the message that sharing hatred will be accepted? We each have individual questions to ask of ourselves and the spaces we occupy.
That’s why these questions need to be asked well beyond Google.
As Stanford computer science professor Cynthia Lee writes, “To be a woman in tech is to know the thrill of participating in one of the most transformative revolutions humankind has known, to experience the crystalline satisfaction of finding an elegant solution to an algorithmic challenge, to want to throw the monitor out the window in frustration with a bug and, later, to do a happy dance in a chair while finally fixing it. To be a woman in tech is also to always and forever be faced with skepticism that I do and feel all those things authentically enough to truly belong.”
Lee goes on to dismantle the “biological differences” argument Damore asserted in his memo:
Yet Google’s workforce is just 19 percent female. So even if we imagine for a moment that the manifesto is correct and there is some biological ceiling on the percentage of women who will be suited to work at Google — less than 50 percent of their workforce — isn’t it the case that Google, and tech generally, is almost certainly not yet hitting that ceiling?
In other words, it is clear that we are still operating in an environment where it is much more likely that women who are biologically able to work in tech are chased away from tech by sociological and other factors, than that biologically unsuited women are somehow brought in by overzealous diversity programs.
In other words, this is a culture issue. And until Google, its Silicon Valley peers, and indeed, workplaces worldwide address it as a culture issue — not a recruiting issue, not a pipeline issue, not a performance review issue, but a culture issue — and in so doing create diverse, welcoming, equitable, and truly inclusive cultures, incidents like this memo and lawsuits like the ones Google faces will continue to arise.
Because incidents and lawsuits are never the problems.
They are always the symptoms.
This originally appeared in The Mouse and the Elephant Weekly. Read the full email, explore other resources, and subscribe at https://tinyletter.com/mouseandelephant/.