Yes, Opinions Can Be Harmful
So here’s a question for the people (shout-out to #notallmen but let’s face it, they’re mostly men) who have issues with the firing of James Damore, a Google engineer who wrote and circulated a manifesto questioning the rationale, impact and legality of Google’s diversity initiatives: what exactly does a person who holds reprehensible (read: ‘politically incorrect’) opinions actually have to do before you can accept that he and his actions are harmful to a work environment and his co-workers?
Does nothing count as ‘harm’ until you’ve got women being propositioned by their supervisors, assaulted and insulted in the office?
Supporters of Damore claim he’s a victim of Google’s ‘ideological echo chamber’ who’s being silenced, someone who has only ever expressed his opinions. (Let’s leave aside the fact that expressing one’s opinions on company time is a corporate perk extended to very few, my esteemed colleagues on this page among them.) ‘He hasn’t acted on his opinions,’ they say.
But if someone’s opinions are that women — 50% of the world’s population, by the way, despite what photos in the business papers might make you think — are just biologically less able, they are going to be interacting with women on that premise. All. The. Time.
And that is exactly how they harm women, and women’s careers. They tune out when a woman in a meeting is speaking — because they don’t believe women have ideas worth listening to, because women lean more towards ‘aesthetics rather than ideas’. They will not pick a woman for a challenging assignment because women have ‘higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance’. They’ll evaluate her performance on that challenging task through the lens of their prejudice: is she ‘agreeable’? Then she’s probably not assertive enough to get the job done.
If someone believes that women lack a biological drive towards higher status, and thus don’t have the work ethic that makes them put in insanely long hours, they’re going to select only those people who are willing to cede their rights to time and space off for career-advancing opportunities.
And these beliefs — opinions — are going to influence your decisions when you interview people, make hiring choices, and when you mentor other people who are going to be doing these things in your company.
Your beliefs are not just going to sit there in your little Google doc. They’re going to create a workplace that’s hostile to the women in it, and that #notallmen is a recognised form of sexual harassment that happens to be illegal. So, yes, quite a bit of harm done.
This ‘manifesto’ goes on to attack sensitivity training — aimed at reducing ‘microaggressions’, like that well-known tendency to interrupt women more — and unconscious bias training. Because apparently being aware of how your opinions are impacting your behaviour is something that’s just too stressful for people (read: #notallmen) to deal with, and will cause a backlash.
Yes, apparently, the class of employees that accounts for 69% of Google’s workforce, and who are biologically less likely to be neurotic, experience stress and are more likely to be assertive and status-driven, can’t handle that particular experience.
In short, Google did the right thing by firing someone who admits to being biased against a large class of employees and potential employees, who believes that propagating that bias does not harm the employees he’s biased against, and who isn’t able to deal with attempts to wean him off this harmful behaviour.
You think, therefore you’re bad enough