It’s clear that James Damore, the former Google engineer who was terminated for a memo he wrote suggesting that women are constitutionally unsuited for jobs in technology never met the late U.S. Navy Rear Admiral and computer programming pioneer Grace Hopper.
I suspect that he has no idea who she was, but considering his short tenure in the technology business, that’s not surprising. Too often people make assumptions based on what they think they know rather than what is real.
For those with short memories, Admiral Grace Hopper was the programmer who worked on the very first mainframe computers during World War II. She famously described the first computer bug that affected programming by pinning the actual insect to the facility’s log book—after she’d retrieved it from the electrical relays that transmitted the binary code that was used in those days.
I remember Admiral Hopper from the time she found out that some programmers that I supervised were coding in COBOL. She was not pleased and I found out first-hand what a dressing down by the Admiral felt like.
Keep in mind, she was one of the inventors of COBOL, but she believed that structured programming, such as you use in C (this was a while ago) really made more sense. So after her withering blast aimed at me, she went to the white board and showed my staff how to do the same things in C. And she wrote the code without references. She could draft C code in her head.
After I finished licking my wounds, two things happened. I filled out a budget request to convert the program to C, citing the Admiral’s directive and I became a huge fan of all things Grace Hopper.
Since then, the recognition for Admiral Hopper and her role in affirming the place of women in science and technology has grown. By the time she died, her recognition included the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Technology.
Since then I’ve worked with and been supervised by many women who has very strong talent in technology and engineering. The biggest obstacles these women have faced weren’t with their technological capabilities.
The obstacles arise from supervisors and hiring managers who make assumptions on the capabilities of women before they step in the door or get a chance to do a day’s work. This problem isn’t limited to women, but includes a wide range of minorities who have found it difficult to succeed in the technology industry.
It’s the view that only white male engineers can possibly handle the work of developing new technology that is one of the biggest threats that we face in our economy and in our culture.
The costs are very real. I remember when my daughters were interviewing with schools where they wanted to at the time to study physics. My older daughter was told outright by a representative of the University of Virginia that “Girls can’t do physics.”
My younger daughter was told much the same. Both of my daughters proved UVA wrong by doing physics very well indeed. But how many young women gave up, discouraged by the refusal of universities and companies to believe they could do the work?
It’s not just my daughters and the Admiral. The problem with this disparagement of women helps perpetuate the significant shortage of technology talent that plagues Silicon Valley and other tech centers today. Yet, time after time, women who persevere prove those opinions wrong.
A close friend of mine, who I’ve known since elementary school, was told repeatedly that she couldn’t contribute to the space program, yet by the time she retired, she was the top data manager for NASA’s Constellation Program, a renewed manned space flight program with the goal of returning to the moon. She could do it and she did. But she had to overcome a series of managers who fought to keep her from making a difference.
But despite the evidence, the “bro” culture in technology centers persists and it causes problems everywhere it’s found. It was the same culture that nearly brought down Uber when management allowed a work environment that was hostile and abusive to women.
This culture ended up harming Uber’s growth and future prospects after thousands refused to use the company’s ride-sharing services.
Now that Damore’s firing has become public with Google’s explanation that he was fired for his violation of Google’s Code of Conduct, not for his views, it’s important to remember that giving women and minorities a fair chance isn’t political correctness. It’s good business.
It’s also a matter of fairness to all employees. Prejudging someone’s abilities on the basis of their gender or race is no more correct for a technology job than it was to discriminate on the basis of gender or race for someone’s right to vote.
Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, explained the issue in his blog entry regarding the manifesto and the firing. “To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK,” he wrote. “It is contrary to our basic values and our Code of Conduct, which expects ‘each Googler to do their utmost to create a workplace culture that is free of harassment, intimidation, bias and unlawful discrimination.”
The idea that women are somehow biologically temperamentally incapable of working in technology is just as wrong as it was when people believed that African-Americans couldn’t hold certain jobs, attend the same schools or use the same rest rooms as white people. It’s just as wrong as the belief that Native Americans had to be confined to reservations for their own good.
There is no place in the technology industry for Damore and his ilk. Quite frankly, firing was too good for him.