Sex­ist memo a new blem­ish on di­ver­sity in tech

Male Google worker’s rant shows it will take more than work­shops to shift the cul­ture.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Tracey Lien and David Pier­son

When Google re­al­ized in 2013 it had a di­ver­sity prob­lem, it fol­lowed the cor­po­rate play­book by in­tro­duc­ing work­shops to train em­ploy­ees about hid­den bi­ases.

But four years later — and af­ter send­ing three­quar­ters of its 70,000 em­ploy­ees through sen­si­tiv­ity train­ing — the Moun­tain View, Calif., tech gi­ant is now reel­ing af­ter a male em­ployee cir­cu­lated a memo ar­gu­ing women are bi­o­log­i­cally in­ca­pable of doing a man’s job in Sil­i­con Val­ley.

The 3,000-word post — which con­tended, among other things, that men fun­da­men­tally have a higher drive for sta­tus than women — has trig­gered an­other cri­sis for a tech in­dus­try scram­bling to find a cred­i­ble so­lu­tion to its un­der­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of mi­nori­ties and women. And it comes at a time when high-pro­file start-ups such as Uber and ven­ture firms such as Bi­nary Cap­i­tal have come un­der fire for sex­ual ha­rass­ment scan­dals.

The memo also puts Google’s push to pro­mote di­ver­sity in the spot­light, rais­ing ques­tions about its ef­fi­cacy. How could a com­pany whose pur­ported rai­son d’etre is “do no evil” har­bor an em­ployee bold enough to de­ride em­pa­thy as ir­ra­tional, equate more women in the work­force as “so­cial engi­neer­ing” and claim fe­males are too agree­able to ef­fec­tively lead?

“If this en­gi­neer said he didn’t be­lieve in the com­pany’s prod­uct phi­los­o­phy, and he was go­ing to work against the prod­uct in­ter­nally, there’s no way that per­son would keep their

said Karla Mon­ter­roso of Code2040, a non­profit that ad­vo­cates for black and Latino lead­er­ship in tech. “Tech needs to make this their moon­shot. We had a speaker at a con­fer­ence who said this is a mat­ter of pri­or­ity and be­lief, and this can­not be harder than cre­at­ing an au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle. It just isn’t.”

Google did not re­spond when asked if the en­gi­neer had been dis­ci­plined. James Damore, iden­ti­fied in me­dia re­ports as the au­thor of the doc­u­ment, told Bloomberg he had been fired for “per­pet­u­at­ing gen­der stereo­types.”

“We are un­equiv­o­cal in our be­lief that di­ver­sity and in­clu­sion are crit­i­cal to our suc­cess as a com­pany, and we’ll con­tinue to stand for that and be com­mit­ted to it for the long haul,” Danielle Brown, vice pres­i­dent of di­ver­sity, in­tegrity and gov­er­nance, said in a state­ment.

It’s un­clear if the man­i­festo, which first sur­faced last week, rep­re­sents a rogue view­point or some wider set of shared be­liefs. Many Google em­ploy­ees came for­ward to de­cry it.

The tech in­dus­try has long held the view that it’s a mer­i­toc­racy in which the best ideas and bright­est peo­ple find suc­cess. The ar­gu­ment that Google’s lack of di­ver­sity is proof of a mer­i­toc­racy has found sup­port on corners of the In­ter­net in which the alt-right has thrived, such as the “Po­lit­i­cally In­cor­rect” fo­rum on 4chan.

Google’s di­ver­sity train­job,” ing was meant to ad­dress this, lay­ing down a marker that the com­pany — which counts 31% of its to­tal work­force as fe­male — sees it has a prob­lem and is work­ing to fix it. But the au­thor of the of­fend­ing memo ap­pears to have hard­ened his views as a re­sult of Google’s push to tackle un­con­scious bias.

The train­ing “has the po­ten­tial for over­cor­rect­ing or back­lash, es­pe­cially if made manda­tory,” he writes.

To ex­perts, it’s not shock­ing that some men in an in­dus­try pre­dom­i­nantly led by men would have trou­ble see­ing the need for work­shops.

“I’ve been doing this work for years and I know with­out a doubt that there are plenty of peo­ple who don’t come from un­der­rep­re­sented back­grounds who feel like the di­ver­sity work that com­pa­nies are doing, and the con­ver­sa­tions around giv­ing women and un­der­rep­re­sented groups the same op­por­tu­ni­ties as every­one else, is un­fair,” said Wayne Sut­ton, co-founder of Change Cat­a­lyst, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that pro­motes di­ver­sity and in­clu­sion in tech.

“They can’t grasp how dif­fi­cult it is, or what we ex­pe­ri­ence as un­der­rep­re­sented in­di­vid­u­als,” Sut­ton con­tin­ued. “Of­ten, they lack the in­tel­li­gence and em­pa­thy to un­der­stand how other peo­ple’s be­hav­ior can limit our op­por­tu­ni­ties. These are sup­posed to be some of the most in­tel­li­gent in­di­vid­u­als, be­cause they can code.”

Solv­ing the prob­lem will take the kind of strate­gic think­ing and re­sources that helped build Google, now known by its par­ent com­pany’s name, Al­pha­bet Inc., into a $650-bil­lion com­pany, ex­perts say.

That doesn’t mean a one-size-fits-all ap­proach. Rather, the en­tire ex­ec­u­tive team, the board and hu­man re­sources depart­ment must work in uni­son. Guide­lines must be put in place that will change work­place cul­ture at all lev­els, ex­perts say.

“It needs se­nior level at­ten­tion,” said Jeff Reid, a pro­fes­sor at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity’s McDonough School of Busi­ness. “It means there’s no quick fix. You can’t say, oh, we’re go­ing to hire a woman as our VP of in­clu­sion, or of­fer di­ver­sity train­ing, and that will solve our prob­lem. When you’re talk­ing about an is­sue that’s part of your cul­ture, it takes a con­certed ef­fort to change cul­ture.”

Google — which was sued by the U.S. Depart­ment of La­bor ear­lier this year for al­legedly with­hold­ing in­for­ma­tion that could determine whether it was un­der­pay­ing women — de­clined a re­quest to dis­cuss pre­cisely how its di­ver­sity train­ing and push to di­ver­sify is be­ing im­ple­mented.

Google says on its cor­po­rate site it has widened its search for em­ploy­ees to pre­dom­i­nantly black univer­si­ties and other col­leges. The com­pany also main­tains more than 20 em­ployee re­source groups, in­clud­ing those for fe­male, black, Latino, gay, se­nior and dis­abled work­ers.

The re­sults have been mod­est. Men ac­count for 80% of tech jobs at Google, down from 83% in 2014 when the com­pany first re­leased di­ver­sity data. Men hold 75% of lead­er­ship po­si­tions to­day, down from 79% three years ago.

As for ra­cial and eth­nic mi­nori­ties, there has been lit­tle change. Black em­ploy­ees con­tinue to hold only 1% of Google’s tech jobs, whereas Latino rep­re­sen­ta­tion in tech po­si­tions has risen to 3% from 2% since 2014. Mean­while, Asians con­tinue to thrive, oc­cu­py­ing 39% of tech po­si­tions com­pared with 34% three years ago.

Sarah Adams, a soft­ware en­gi­neer at Google, said she was dis­heart­ened by her ex­pe­ri­ence in the com­pany’s un­con­scious bias work­shops.

At one ses­sion, an in­struc­tor de­scribed how women of­ten see their ideas dis­missed while white men are cel­e­brated for es­pous­ing the same ideas. Asked to break off into smaller groups to dis­cuss the prob­lem, Adams voiced an idea only to be ig­nored by her col­leagues. When a white man brought up the same idea, the group ac­cepted it.

“It was very painful,” Adams said. “Most peo­ple who go to the train­ings re­ally want to be bet­ter, but of course that’s not true of every­one who comes to the classes we of­fer.”

Chang­ing a cul­ture is not im­pos­si­ble. Lenore Blum headed an ini­tia­tive at Carnegie Mel­lon Univer­sity’s school of com­puter sci­ence in the 1990s that helped in­crease the num­ber of women in the com­puter sci­ence pro­gram from less than 10% to 49% to­day.

“We didn’t change the cur­ricu­lum, we just changed the en­vi­ron­ment,” Blum said.

Blum helped launch a group called Women@SCS (Women at the School of Com­puter Sci­ence) to cre­ate net­work­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties and of­fer men­tor­ship.

The school also ex­panded its cri­te­ria for stu­dent ac­cep­tance, in­clud­ing al­low­ing those with­out prior pro­gram­ming ex­pe­ri­ence.

“It opened doors for women, but it also changed the kinds of men we were ad­mit­ting,” said Blum, adding there was a se­vere back­lash that even­tu­ally dis­si­pated. “We don’t see that any­more.”

Marcio Jose Sanchez As­so­ci­ated Press

A MEMO by a male Google em­ployee said women are in­ca­pable of doing a man’s job in Sil­i­con Val­ley.

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