15 Aug 2017 19:01 IST

Why Google was wrong to fire Damore

As a rule, a company should not punish employees because they hold clumsy, and perhaps wrong, views

The culture war in the tech world dominated the news cycle for an entire week when Google, with the approval of its CEO Sundar Pichai, fired James Damore, a senior software engineer, for expressing views that “advanced harmful gender stereotypes”.

Damore, 28 years old, is a brilliant biology systems professional and a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. He had completed postgraduate work at Princeton and MIT before pursuing a PhD at Harvard, when he participated in several Google brain teaser and coding competitions.

On entering the semifinal stage of one such tournament, he was offered to intern with the company in 2013. Damore abandoned his quest for PhD and joined Google, quickly rising to the position of a senior software engineer with powers to hire and fire employees.

A liberal atmosphere

Google is more like a college campus than a workplace. I know this first-hand when I spent a week at the Googleplex about nine years ago.

And like top college campuses, it is extremely liberal in outlook, creating spaces for everyone and discriminating against no one. It continues to be a company which actively encourages employees to express views even if they are critical of the management.

Damore’s memo

It was in this context that Damore wrote a memo about gender diversity at Google, a piece that appears to be substantiated with scholarly references. Reading the first three pages of Damore’s 10-page memo, it is hard not to come away with the stereotype that many engineers, despite their brilliance, find trouble in creatively expressing themselves.

Damore starts off with the premise that having more women in the tech workplace is a good thing. But he struggles with how Google has failed to achieve gender diversity because at best, only about 20 per cent of Google’s tech force is female.

But this failure is certainly not for lack of trying. Google is the most selective employer on the planet, rejecting 99.8 per cent of the applications it receives.

So, it is certainly attracting the best female talent in the world. And its affirmative action policies make sure that no female candidate who expresses potential ever falls through the cracks. In a TV interview with Bloomberg, Damore said that while most men candidates who didn’t do well during their first interviews are rejected by Google, women are routinely given second and third chances to succeed.

It is not that Google doesn’t spend money on diversity training either. One report said that the company spends $265 million a year, a whopping sum considering it has only about 70,000 full-time employees. In other words, if a female employee at Google who got into a non-engineering position wants to become an engineer, Google will do everything in its power to make it happen.

Clumsy conclusions

So, why is Google failing? Damore is so desperate to solve this puzzle — he is after all a champion puzzle solver — that he draws a few conclusions unrelated to abilities but settling on psychology and behaviour.

He says that the vast majority of people in the world are not in tech because it requires a certain skill, a certain doggedness, to code and debug software. Staring at screens for hours on end and fine-tuning a character here or a line of code there to get something to work requires so much focus that engineers quickly lose the concept of social behaviour and the niceties required for human interaction.

Damore says that women are naturally more anxious about outcomes, and so, would not probably thrive in such a stress-filled environment, day in and day out.

This is clearly a clumsy conclusion because he is taking an overly broad brush and painting all women with it. He says that he is not a sexist but clearly, his views appear to be so.

Impact on the company

But what practical impact does Damore’s views have on Google? In his daily responsibilities, he was too low-level of an employee to have made much of a difference, even if he had unilaterally imposed his views to override Google’s diversity policies. Then, of course, he could be warned, suspended or even fired by Google for wilful violation of employee conduct.

Nor was Damore’s memo written for Google’s Human Resources, summarising its latest policies. He was simply calling for debate in the best of Google’s traditions, discussing a seemingly intractable problem, getting bottled up in knots and then drawing a flawed conclusion.

What it could have done

Google could have simply responded to Damore’s memo, saying that while it does not agree with his characterisation of women, the company’s diversity policies are firmly here to stay until Google has had a chance to consider Damore’s memo further.

It could have gone on to point out that some of the most successful women in the tech industry, including Marissa Meyer (former CEO at Yahoo), Sheryl Sandberg (COO at Facebook), and Susan Wojcicki (CEO of Youtube), were all Google alumni — defeating Damore’s argument at the core.

Instead, Google chose to fire Damore. As a rule, a company should not punish employees because they hold clumsy, and perhaps wrong, views. This is even more so if the company encourages dissent and allows employees to discuss critical issues about its workplace through its systems on company time.

Snuffing out dissent

Google could be legally liable for firing him too. Damore could claim that the company’s endless efforts to force gender diversity were affecting his work environment because they were taking away his team’s focus on creating the best products and services — the reason employees are hired and rewarded at Google in the first place. Indeed, Damore is reported to have filed a complaint with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging just this.

Google says it encourages dissent but it is clear that it doesn’t really do so. In his memo, Damore says that Google was so liberal and left leaning in its political views that contrarian opinions like his are often suppressed because conservatives fear retaliation at coming out. He maintained that many Google employees agreed with him about Google’s failed diversity efforts but were afraid of being punished, so they stayed hidden in their closets.

This is an extremely serious charge — and sadly, one that has been proved right. The hallmark of free expression is to be able to tolerate opposing views, even if they do not comport with what the majority of Google’s employees feel.

Hypocritical censoring

The search engine giant, which abandoned its China business completely and walked away from the world’s biggest internet market because it did not want its search results subjected to censorship, has now censored one of its own employees for expressing an opinion which it did not agree with.

If limiting harmful gender stereotypes was Google’s original reasoning for firing Damore, ironically, Google has done the exact opposite. Damore’s internal memo was probably just seen by a few hundred employees initially, until some liberal employee leaked it to an outside media outlet.

Today, the memo has been widely seen, circulated and debated all over the world. It has triggered thousands of opinions on social media and has further divided the left from the right, showing how draconian western companies can be.

Pichai, who cut short his Africa vacation to rush home to California and hold a high-profile “All Hands” meeting to address the firing, decided to cancel the meeting because of fear of harassment.

Selective outrage

This is the problem with the west today. As I have said in these columns before, it likes to preach that human rights and free speech are paramount in modern society. It frowns on any form of suppression if censorship is State driven as in Russia, China, Iran and many countries in the middle east.

But the west engages with these very economies because cleverly, it says that not doing so would oppress those people even more. If gender diversity is so important to Google, why does it operate in Saudi Arabia where the country continues to outlaw women from driving, and even adult women are considered dependents of a male relative? Surely, such suppression is a lot more damaging than an engineer’s memo?

If all the tech companies withdrew from Saudi Arabia, denying even the kingdom’s officials the comfort of the internet and its tools, wouldn’t that be a powerful message to help change a medieval system?

Online moral policing

But the tech companies would never do this because the impact to their bottomlines would be significant. The moral police in America today is so powerful that if someone is not politically correct, the offender is punished. He/she is bludgeoned on social media and in nearly every case, the offender’s career, however stellar, is over. The only difference is that the punishment is not meted out by the State but by private parties.

The goal of political correctness is to get people to be more tolerant of others who are less like them. Tolerance, in this context, at least at Google, is apparently not a two-way street.

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