Google can’t bring itself to tolerate diversity
(Bloomberg View) -- Over the weekend, a Google engineer named James Damore gained infamy for publishing a 10-page criticism of the company’s “authoritarian” approach to achieving gender diversity. By Monday, he was fired. If the goal was to confirm Damore's thesis, Team Google is doing a great job.
Titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” the memo sets out a well-intentioned goal: Find non-discriminatory ways to reduce gender disparities. At last tally, women occupied only 20 percent of tech jobs at the Alphabet Inc. unit, a dismal number even by Silicon Valley standards. Damore, who wrote the memo anonymously and later identified himself publicly and confirmed his dismissal, argues that Google’s use of targets (known as “objectives and key results”) can incentivize reverse discrimination, and suggests focusing instead on rewarding what he calls inherently “female” traits -- such as cooperation and the desire for a better work-life balance.
It’s fine to question Damore's characterization of women. (As a female engineer in Silicon Valley, I endorse his suggestion to “treat people as individuals, not as just another member of their group.”) It’s okay to disagree with the proposed solutions. But the backlash was egregiously swift and brutal. Google representatives issued multiple statements denouncing the document. Past and present colleagues chimed in over the weekend with calls for the engineer to be ousted. Media outlets like TechCrunch, Gizmodo and Motherboard jumped on board to declare the memo an “Anti-Diversity Manifesto.” It appears that the ideological echo chamber extends beyond Google’s campus.
Silicon Valley has a very peculiar definition of diversity that requires proportional representation from every gender and race, all of whom must think exactly alike. Given that Google has failed to reach this ideal despite nearly a decade of efforts, Damore might be right to suggest that it try a different tack. Google rejects 99.8 percent of job applicants, making it far more selective than any Ivy League university. It’s not unreasonable to posit that in this top 0.2 percent of the population, there may be various ways in which talent manifests differently between the sexes.
Suggesting that men and women are different, though, can be a perilous endeavor. In 2005, Harvard President Larry Summers speculated that the under-representation of women in top science and engineering positions might have something to do with the male tendency to exhibit extreme traits -- to, say, have very high or low IQs. The remarks were widely condemned as an allegation that women have an innate disadvantage in science and math. Summers apologized profusely, but it was too late. The faculty convened and issued a no-confidence vote, and the president stepped down shortly thereafter.
Suppressing intellectual debate on college campuses is bad enough. Doing the same in Silicon Valley, which has essentially become a finishing school for elite universities, compounds the problem. Its engineers build products that potentially shape our digital lives. At Google, they oversee a search algorithm that seeks to surface “authoritative” results and demote low-quality content. This algorithm is tuned by an internal team of evaluators. If the company silences dissent within its own ranks, why should we trust it to manage our access to information?
In a statement, Google’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, Danielle Brown, refused to link to Damore's memo, saying that “it’s not a viewpoint that I or this company endorses, promotes or encourages.” Companies don’t have viewpoints. Humans do -- diverse ones. The swiftness with which Google removed an outspoken engineer demonstrates that Damore is exactly right: Google could use some diversity of ideas.