Google’s Memo Fumbles Speak To Larger Struggles With Openness

By Wendy Lee and Marissa Lang
San Francisco Chronicle

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Google has been in the the hot seat for the past week after a widely circulated memo by former Google software engineer James Damore claimed there are more men than women in tech because they have innate, biological attributes that naturally predispose them to careers in coding, while women do not.

San Francisco Chronicle

Google has long sought to symbolize the free flow of information in the technology age, but this week, the company struck many as opaque and disorganized in its handling of a controversy over speech by employees.

The series of missteps were capped by the cancellation of a staff meeting meant to foster an open discussion of race, gender and political ideology.

That, critics said, only stands to make matters worse for Google, which for a week has been on the defensive over a widely circulated memo by former Google software engineer James Damore.

The company had scheduled a meeting for Thursday afternoon to discuss the document, in which Damore argued that there are more men than women in tech because they have innate, biological attributes that naturally predispose them to careers in coding, while women do not.

Employees who planned to ask questions about the memo feared their identities would be exposed, opening them up to harassment, CEO Sundar Pichai wrote in a staff memo, so he canceled the talk.

“In recognition of Googlers’ concerns, we need to step back and create a better set of conditions for us to have the discussion,” Pichai wrote in the memo.

It is unclear what those conditions might be. A Google spokesman declined to comment on the structure of any forums, or whether there would be larger community discussions about Damore’s memo. Pichai wrote that Google would seek to create forums “where people can feel comfortable to speak freely.”

Pichai said the majority of staffers agreed with the company’s decision to fire Damore, though some “are worried that you cannot speak out at work freely.” Several current and former Google employees told The Chronicle that they wish the company would do more to reinforce its commitment to diversity.

“All of your voices and opinions matter … and I want to hear them,” Pichai wrote.

More important than Pichai hearing both sides, conservative and progressive tech workers said, is whether they’re able to speak to each other across ideological divides.

“If we all run to our corners, and refuse to have conversations with the intention of finding common ground and solutions that can move the tech community forward and make a work environment where everybody thrives, then we’re doing our industry a disservice and our country a disservice,” said Garrett Johnson, a registered Republican and co-founder of the Lincoln Network, a libertarian-leaning nonprofit that uses technology to support democracy.

“Conservatives have good ideas. Progressives have good ideas. It depends on the issue. And at the end of the day, you need to create a bridge between the two.”

Johnson said his disappointment in Google didn’t stem from the decision to fire Damore, but rather the subsequent
refusal to have an open dialogue about it.

“For tech companies to not encourage people who identify as conservative or right-of-center to participate in policy discussions and share their ideas as to how it relates to products, that’s ignoring the fact that almost 50 percent of the country identifies as being somewhat right of center. These are your customers,” he said. “If you’re going to say we want diversity, great. Sexual orientation? Check. Gender? Check. Race and ethnicity? Check. But we should also have a discussion about including people across the political spectrum. If we don’t, that’s hypocritical.”

Meanwhile, Damore has said he is considering legal action against Google for firing him.

In media interviews this week, Damore has largely reiterated what he wrote in his memo, saying that his intentions were to have a larger discussion about Google’s efforts to diversify its workforce and its hiring practices.

On Thursday, Damore started a Twitter account called @Fired4Truth, and published photos of himself wearing a shirt that turns Google’s logo into “Goolag,” a riff on the word for political labor camps in the former Soviet Union.

“I think it’s impossible sometimes to say what you really believe without offending someone,” Damore said in an interview Friday with radio talk show host Michael Medved. “That’s how we get this political doublespeak that tries so hard to not offend anyone that it really just says nothing.”

Several far-right groups and personalities have flocked to support Damore and his memo this week, including Mike Cernovich, an online conspiracy theorist.

Damore has been giving select media interviews, the first of which were with Stefan Molyneux and Jordan B. Peterson, bloggers with followings among far-right conservatives and white supremacists.

Molyneux, whose YouTube videos have provocative titles like “Why Feminists Hate Men: What They Won’t Tell You,” plugged a crowdfunding campaign set up to support Damore’s legal battle that, as of Friday afternoon, had collected more than $40,000.

Though Google executives reportedly struggled with how to handle the memo, Pichai, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki and others ultimately concluded that the document was inappropriate and demeaning to the contributions of women on Google’s staff.

Thursday was supposed to be the company’s first staff meeting since Damore’s firing, allowing those disappointed in the company’s actions to speak out. But it never happened.

Pichai did offer some remarks at a tech event for young women and girls on Thursday night. In a speech, he emphasized the importance of Google’s efforts to have its workforce reflect the global customers it serves, and told young women and girls in the audience that they can be successful entrepreneurs.

“I want you to know there is a place for you in this industry,” Pichai said. “There is a place for you at Google. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You belong here and we need you.”

Many of those at the event, though young, were well aware of Damore’s memo.

Ashni Sheth, an incoming eighth-grader at Castilleja, an independent school for girls in Palo Alto, said that while Damore is welcome to his opinions, she felt it important to not make generalizations. Statistics may show that women tend to go toward certain jobs that are more people-oriented, but “that’s only because that is what society tells us to do,” 12-year-old Ashni said.

“It’s not like it’s everyone’s choice necessarily,” she added.

Her teammate Christina Lee said she was taken aback by Damore’s memo at first, but after talking with some Google employees, she realized it was important to discuss nevertheless.

“It opened my mind not to judge things immediately and to look into things,” 13-year-old Christina said.

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