Google fum­bles planned di­ver­sity dis­cus­sion

San Francisco Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Wendy Lee and Marissa Lang

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-of­cen­ter 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 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 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-yearold Christina said.

Michael Short / Bloomberg 2016

Google CEO Sun­dar Pichai has strug­gled with how to re­spond to a con­tro­ver­sial memo.

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