Google Employee's Anti-Diversity Memo: Lessons For IT Industry

by Sohini Bagchi    Aug 09, 2017

women IT

The latest controversy on the gender gap issue in technology resurfaced when Google announced that it has fired engineer James Damore for “perpetuating gender stereotypes” in an internal memo about the company’s corporate culture. In discussing the lack of gender diversity in tech, Damore had written about supposed biological differences between men and women, and how those differences “may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in technology and leadership.”

While sacking Damore may have been the right thing for Google, as there is little solid evidence of differences in the brains of both the sexes, the leaked memo is a reminder that the notion of Silicon Valley is a myth especially in the way it treats women in the technology domain. It also serves as an alert on how deeply anti-equality attitudes are held in the Silicon Valley and across the globe.

The tech industry is stuck in the past, and it may take the force of our legal system to change that, believes Anita Hill, counsel to Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, a US-based plaintiffs’ law firm. “Women in the industry should collectively consider their legal options. Top among these would be class-action discrimination cases against employers. The male-dominated leadership of Silicon Valley has proved unwilling or unable to solve systemic gender inequality. It’s time women in tech consider taking advantage of the law to disrupt the industry once and for all,” she wrote in NY Times. [Read the full article here]

Last year, a former employee of Wipro, Shreya Ukil was eloquent about her charges on gender bias, victimization and unfair dismissal against her employer. The court had found Wipro guilty of unfairly dismissing their employee, direct gender discrimination and multiple instances of victimization. Ukil stated that she hoped this judgment would make companies reconsider their treatment of female employees as fair and equal and it created a lot of stir on the conditions of female employees in IT companies.

In recent months, a former Uber employee published her blog post detailing her experience with the ride-sharing company’s toxic, male-dominated culture, a stream of female coders, engineers and others have come forward to discuss their experiences with sexual harassment and hostile, discriminatory workplace cultures.

Read more: Women Leaders In Tech: Time For Some Action

Sadly, these cases represent only one element of the industry-wide discrimination against women in technology. Companies like Google, Uber, Twitter, Microsoft and Oracle, among many others faced allegations of sexism in the form of individual lawsuits and Labor Department inquiries in recent times that helped in creating waves. However, the representation of women in tech needs further attention.

There’s an alarming gap in pay and promotions, which has devastating effects on women’s careers. According to recent figures from IT recruitment company Technojobs, women are far less well-represented than men in IT recruitment. The survey found that nearly 91 percent, said they are receiving less than one-fifth, or 20 percent, of job applications from women. The two prominent areas in the IT sector in which women were least represented are security and IT support, with women making up 10 percent of support staff and holding 14 percent of security positions, the study found.

While one may still argue that there are a number of prominent names like Sheryl Sandberg, Marrisa Mayer, Meg Whitman and Padmasree Warrior in the IT industry, these numbers are relatively few in the larger male dominated IT world, the tech scene is often criticized for its gender gap in pay with research showing that men with graduate or professional degrees earn 73 percent more than women with the same credentials.

Gender pay discrimination doesnt exist in the Silicon Valley alone but is also a global phenomenon. The findings of a Monster India report showed gender pay gap in the IT industry is as high as 29 percent, in which a male IT worker receives a gross salary of Rs 359.25 an hour while a female worker received Rs 254.04 an hour. This disparity can be attributed to the fact that men get promoted to a supervisory position more often than women, as the report stated that only 36 percent of female employees are promoted to a supervisory position, while 52 percent of the male counterparts get promoted to a supervisory rank.

Read: IT Needs More Women In Tech Roles

Similarly, women are drastically underrepresented in the Silicon Valley leadership positions. According to a recent Gender Diversity in Silicon Valley report, published by law firm Fenwick & West, suggested, women make up a measly 11 percent of executives within the Silicon Valley’s companies. The report also shows, women make up only 10 percent of directors, 10 percent of committee members and 8 percent of committee chairs and a dismal 9 percent of women are named executive officers in Silicon valley.

Gartner report too reveals that despite female tech leaders showing similar or even better performance than men, especially when it comes to deploying digital strategies in their organizations, the percentage of women tech executives are relatively few. The percentage of women CIOs, for example, has remained largely static since 2004, when Gartner first analyzed the CIO Agenda Survey data by gender.

The memo has clearly impacted our co-workers, some of whom are hurting and feel judged based on their gender. Our co-workers shouldn’t have to worry that each time they open their mouths to speak in a meeting, they have to prove that they are not like the memo states, being “agreeable” rather than “assertive,” showing a “lower stress tolerance,” or being “neurotic.
-Sundar Pichai, CEO, Google

It’s time, some action is needed by the tech companies in the area of gender inequality, and Google’s firing of its engineer seems to be a right step in this direction. In response to the leaked memo, Danielle Brown, Google’s new vice president of diversity, told employees in an email that “it’s not a viewpoint that I or this company endorses, promotes or encourages“. “Changing a culture is hard, and it’s often uncomfortable,” she said, adding that “part of building an open, inclusive environment means fostering a culture in which those with alternative views, including different political views, feel safe sharing their opinions.”

In a letter to employees, Google CEO Sundar Pichai further mentioned, the engineer was fired not for simply expressing unpopular opinions, but for perpetuating “harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace” and violating the company’s Code of Conduct: “The memo has clearly impacted our co-workers, some of whom are hurting and feel judged based on their gender.”

In fact, many of the first computer programmers and coders were women, explains Nathan Ensmenger, a professor and expert on the history of computing at Indiana University and writer. She believes, there aren’t any actual research that supports the idea that gender-based brain differences exist which brings out the gender disparity in tech. Citing India, Malaysia, even parts of Europe as example, she states, more educated young women are more likely to go into computing in other parts of the world.

Meanwhile, Damore received much appreciation for his opinions on gender discrimination, from a section of techies, who believes every employee has a right to voice his or opinion in a free society, as, Julian Assange has offered him a job with WikiLeaks. In the last few hours, WeSearchr, the alt-right crowdfunding tool, has raised more than $8,000 for him. In fact, a National Review piece equates the ‘hapless engineer’ with Martin Luther, saying he’s nailed 95 theses to the door of the “Church of PC.” Some people are tweeting the hashtag #JeSuisJamesDamore.

Opinions will be divided, and to his supporters, it appears as if Damore was fired for refusing to take the position that all gender differences are socially constructed or due to discrimination. However, Elaine Ou wrote in Bloomberg View, “Here is a red herring. Damore wasn’t fired for harboring stereotyped views about women. He was fired for putting those views into a memo and disseminating it throughout the company in a way that calls his colleagues’ competence into question, and this can be a danger for not only Google or the IT industry, but the society on the whole.”

While Google’s firing of its anti-diversity employee may not change the mindset of Silicon Valley overnight, industry experts believe [and we think] these trends will drive additional thoughts and discussions among leaders in the Silicon Valley [and globally] on how to create and sustain a more diverse workforce, so as to reduce the gender gap in the days to come.