How ef­fec­tive is di­ver­sity and bias train­ing?

Google fir­ing raises ques­tions about the tool’s use­ful­ness.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - By David Pier­son and Tracey Lien

For­mer Google em­ployee James Damore was sup­posed to come away en­light­ened by his di­ver­sity train­ing, armed with a new­found sense of em­pa­thy for col­leagues who did not look like him, a white male.

In­stead, the soft­ware en­gi­neer was so en­raged by the ex­pe­ri­ence he de­cided to write a now-in­fa­mous 3,000word memo on a flight to China rail­ing against Google’s “ide­o­log­i­cal echo cham­ber” and ar­gu­ing that women land fewer tech jobs be­cause of bi­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences.

“I went to a di­ver­sity pro­gram at Google and … I heard things that I def­i­nitely dis­agreed with,” Damore, 28, told Ste­fan Molyneux, a lib­er­tar­ian pod­caster and au­thor. Damore said he had some con­ver­sa­tions at the pro­gram, but “there was a lot of, just, sham­ing — ‘No, you can’t say that, that’s sex­ist’; ‘You can’t do this.’… There’s just so much hypocrisy in a lot of the things that they’re say­ing.”

Damore’s words were dis­avowed by Google and re­jected by those who be­lieve women pos­sess the same qual­i­ties as men to suc­ceed in the tech world — an in­dus­try that has sparked no short­age of con­tro­versy over its treat­ment of women and in­clu­sion of mi­nori­ties.

But Damore’s bit­ter re­ac­tion raises ques­tions about the ef­fec­tive­ness of di­ver­sity and bias train­ing, a tool com­pa­nies and other or­ga­ni­za­tions have adopted to pre­vent hos­til­ity in the work­place, and in Google’s case, to pro­mote the hir­ing and re­ten­tion of more women and mi­nori­ties.

Re­searchers re­main di­vided on its use­ful­ness, but or­ga­ni­za­tions may have no bet­ter op­tion to at­tempt to shift com­pany cul­ture, es­tab­lish be­hav­ioral guide­lines and ad­dress the le­gal risk of a hos­tile work en­vi­ron­ment.

Google in­tro­duced train­ing in 2013 to make em­ploy­ees aware of hid­den bi­ases, such as hir­ing a man over a more qual­i­fied woman be­cause of an un­con­scious as­sump­tion the woman will be dis­tracted by child care. The tech gi­ant, which has fun­neled three-quar­ters of its more than 70,000 work­ers through the pro­gram, did not re­spond to ques­tions about its train­ing pro­gram.

One em­ployee said the

train­ing cov­ered top­ics such as con­sid­er­ing fe­male em­ploy­ees’ opin­ions equal to those of male coun­ter­parts. The ses­sions, which were manda­tory, in­cluded smaller group dis­cus­sions. “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,” said the em­ployee, Sarah Adams, a soft­ware en­gi­neer.

Ex­perts say one of the fun­da­men­tal chal­lenges of di­ver­sity and bias train­ing is this: Peo­ple don’t like to be told what to do and think. That’s why ex­perts say an in­struc­tor’s words can quickly back­fire if they put the au­di­ence on the de­fen­sive.

“It’s a lot of what not to do: ‘Don’t say this, don’t do that,’ ” said Joelle Emer­son, founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive of Par­a­digm, a di­ver­sity and in­clu­sion con­sult­ing firm whose clients in­clude Airbnb, Lyft, Twit­ter and Spo­tify. “Turns out most peo­ple don’t en­gage su­per well on that type of train­ing on any­thing. Peo­ple are more mo­ti­vated around strate­gies that fo­cus on what they can do rather than what they can­not do.”

That could mean sim­ply pro­vid­ing struc­ture to an in­ter­view so that all job can­di­dates are asked the same ques­tions, re­duc­ing the chances of un­fore­seen prej­u­dices in­flu­enc­ing an out­come.

Ex­perts say such guide­lines are nec­es­sary be­cause it’s dif­fi­cult to change peo­ple’s minds, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to bi­ases. Of­ten, a more re­al­is­tic goal is to sim­ply try to man­age bi­ases so that they don’t poi­son an at­mos­phere on the job.

“If you’re of­fered train­ing that tries to make you less bi­ased, that’s prob­a­bly bad train­ing be­cause you can’t elim­i­nate bias,” Emer­son said. “We train em­ploy­ees and man­agers on the types of be­hav­ior that are de­signed to re­duce the neg­a­tive con­se­quences of bias.”

Damore, who did not re­spond to re­quests for an in­ter­view, also be­longs to a par­tic­u­larly in­tran­si­gent group when it comes to ad­dress­ing at­ti­tudes and feel­ings, said Joan C. Wil­liams, pro­fes­sor of law at UC Hast­ings Col­lege of the Law and au­thor of “What Works for Women at Work.”

“What that en­gi­neer ex­pressed is an at­ti­tude that’s com­mon in en­gi­neer­ing, which is that en­gi­neer­ing is tech­ni­cal and pure, and that any­thing else that has to do with so­cial is­sues is un­rig­or­ous and doesn’t be­long in en­gi­neer­ing,” she said.

Across na­tional stud­ies in­ves­ti­gat­ing gen­der bias, Wil­liams said, this po­si­tion “is a mi­nor­ity at­ti­tude, but it’s much stronger in en­gi­neer­ing than it is in the le­gal pro­fes­sion.”

Rather than be­ing pre­scrip­tive and tell peo­ple what they can or can’t say or do, it’s more ef­fec­tive to play to peo­ple’s strengths as prob­lem solvers, ac­cord­ing to Wil­liams.

When she has trained peo­ple in sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and math­e­mat­ics fields in the past, she has got­ten the best re­sponse when she pre­sented the room with a well­doc­u­mented bias, and asked them how they would “in­ter­rupt” it.

Peo­ple work­ing in the sci­ences and tech­nol­ogy fields, who are used to and com­fort­able with find­ing new so­lu­tions to old prob­lems, are typ­i­cally much more open and en­gaged when asked to come up with so­lu­tions this way, she said.

Fred­er­ick R. Lynch, a pro­fes­sor of gov­ern­ment at Claremont McKenna Col­lege and the au­thor of “The Di­ver­sity Ma­chine: The Drive to Change the ‘White Male Work­place,’” is deeply skep­ti­cal of many bias train­ing cour­ses be­cause they in­her­ently strike fear in white au­di­ences who think they’ll have to an­swer for so­ci­ety’s in­equal­i­ties.

“The prob­lem with po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness and the di­ver­sity train­ing en­vi­ron­ment is that it can un­der­mine trust; ev­ery­one gets so sen­si­tive they feel like they’re walk­ing on eggshells,” Lynch said.

More­over, Lynch be­lieves the pri­mary goal of such train­ing is of­ten not to change at­ti­tudes but to re­duce any le­gal li­a­bil­i­ties from work­place in­ci­dents.

“Most or­ga­ni­za­tions are in­ter­ested in cov­er­ing their rear ends,” he said.

Damore said he wrote the memo af­ter his bias train­ing to clar­ify his thoughts.

In the 10-page memo, which he sent to col­leagues and which later went pub­lic, Damore ac­cused Google of re­sort­ing to dis­crim­i­na­tory prac­tices in its quest to di­ver­sify its work­force.

Damore has granted in­ter­views to Molyneux and to Uni­ver­sity of Toronto psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor Jor­dan B. Peter­son, who have siz­able fol­low­ings on YouTube and track records of crit­i­ciz­ing at­ti­tudes they de­scribe as po­lit­i­cally cor­rect.

Damore told Peter­son that he was fired by his hu­man re­sources rep­re­sen­ta­tive and his di­rec­tor at Google “for per­pet­u­at­ing gen­der stereo­types” and de­scribed him­self as a vic­tim of “PC si­lenc­ing.”

“This was a huge PR move,” Damore said of his ter­mi­na­tion. “They would have needed ap­proval from higher-ups.”

Damore told the As­so­ci­ated Press that he filed a com­plaint with the Na­tional La­bor Re­la­tions Board be­fore he was fired and that he is ex­plor­ing his le­gal op­tions. A Google spokesper­son told the AP that the fir­ing could not have been re­tal­ia­tory be­cause Google did not learn of the com­plaint un­til af­ter­ward.

Google Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Sun­dar Pichai has de­nounced Damore’s memo for “ad­vanc­ing harm­ful gen­der stereo­types” and said he was cut­ting short a va­ca­tion and would meet with em­ploy­ees Thurs­day.

Fa­cundo Ar­riz­a­bal­aga Euro­pean Pressphoto Agency

GOOGLE in­tro­duced train­ing in 2013 to make work­ers aware of hid­den bi­ases. Above, its Lon­don of­fice.

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