The controversy sparked by former Google engineer James Damore’s outspoken memo on gender diversity issues at the company shows no signs of abating.
Instead, it appears to have become a surrogate of sorts for the broader culture war that is going on in the country between the right and the left on a variety of political, ideological and social issues—not all of the directly related to Damore’s firing.
Many, including Google CEO Sundar Pichai, viewed Damore’s memo as propagating offensive and age-old gender stereotypes. But a growing number of people have come out in support of Damore and have faulted Google for firing the engineer for what they see as an expression of his legitimate concerns over the company’s preferential treatment of female employees.
On Friday, New York Times columnist David Brooks called for Pichai’s resignation for his allged mishandling of the issue. Brooks faulted Pichai for grossly mischaracterizing what Damore had actually said and squelching the engineers right to free speech.
Like a growing number of people, Brooks described Damore’s memo as scientifically fair and accurate when he asserted there are certain inherent genetic differences between the genders.
Damore had claimed that it was these factors rather than overt discrimination that were the primary reason why 80 percent of Google’s tech employees are male. He claimed that Google in its effort to increase the number of women in technology positions was actually giving them preferential treatment instead.
Brooks acknowledged why the memo might have created legitimate tension especially for women at Google. But he faulted Pichai, Google diversity officer Danielle Brown and the media for portraying the memo as a misogynistic screed, when it was not.
“The mob that hounded Damore was like the mobs we’ve seen on a lot of college campuses,” he argued in faulting Pichai for not handling the crisis with the tact it deserved.
On Aug. 11 the Wall Street Journal published an essay written by Damore restating his view that he was fired because his effort to discuss differences between men and women “couldn’t be tolerated in company’s ‘ideological echo chamber.'”
Meanwhile, Pichai himself canceled a scheduled all-hands town-hall meeting Thursday to discuss gender diversity issues at the company after several employees apparently expressed concern for their personal safety. In a memo, that Variety quoted, Pichai said the employees were worried they may be ‘outed’ for asking questions at the meeting.
The concerns came reportedly after political commentator Milo Yiannopoulos posted on his Facebook page, the Twitter profiles of several Google employees who had submitted questions for the town hall. “Look at who works for Google. It all make sense now,” Yiannopolous wrote in posting the profiles.
Elsewhere, others chimed in on how the outcry at Google is really a commentary on the broader discrimination against women in the high tech industry.
In an interview with CNBC, 24-year old Google software engineer Amelia Brunne confessed to not being surprised by the contents of Damore’s memo as much as the outcry against it. She said the views in Damore’s memo are examples the attitudes that women in tech have to constantly contend with and noted how male engineers often tended to ignore the competencies of female engineer and dismiss them as “diversity hires.”
The debate that erupted over the firing doesn’t help any company that is trying promote employee diversity, said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research.
“I have little doubt that the value of Google’s brand will diminish somewhat among the fans of this sort of manifesto,” who believe they are being discriminated against because of political correctness, Gottheil said.
The controversy at Google highlights the challenges that companies, especially those dominated by knowledge workers, face in the current highly polarized political and social environment, he said. “This is exactly why companies like Google institute programs to increase diversity, awareness, and yes, empathy,” Gottheil noted.
All such programs will likely seem to be coercive to some. Still companies need to do what it takes to ameliorate conditions that make some employees and candidates uncomfortable or worse, he said.
“One of the most difficult tasks is to create and maintain a company culture that helps employs know what ideas or beliefs are appropriate or inappropriate to voice” in certain contexts, he noted. “What can be said one-to-one may not be OK in a group, or in a communication that is likely to be shared,” Gottheil said.
Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT said it is too early in the news cycle to determine what kind of long-term impact this will have on public perceptions of Google. But he said there’s little that company management could have done differently.
“The fact that the memo was posted on a company discussion board and disseminated widely before it was publicly released made it an issue Google had to address publicly,” King said.
“Since actions tend to reflect belief, if the company had not responded as it did, many would have believed Google supported the author’s conclusions. That would have triggered other problems and a different sort of PR nightmare,” King said.
The fundamental takeaway here is that companies need to always follow a course of action that reflects the firm’s professed core values. “The second is to ignore the noise and look for the essence,” King said.
“In this case, the wrangling over the rightness or wrongness of the Google memo obscures the essential, serious problems the tech industry has with gender issues. Google appears to be willing to face and, hopefully, correct those larger problems,” King said.