Gizmodo calls a Google engineer’s leaked internal memo about the company’s diversity initiatives an “anti-diversity screed.” Recode calls it “sexist.” Most major news organizations frame it in similar terms. The memo has gone viral. (Update: Google has fired the author for “perpetuating gender stereotypes.”)
In reality, the problem is that a senior software engineer, perhaps unwittingly, admitted to pondering three of the most scandalous thought-crimes of contemporary American society.
The first was to propose that a meritocracy might be heathier for a company than bean-counting race, ethnicity, and sex. The second is pointing that ideological diversity matters. The third, and most grievous of all the wrongthinks, is suggesting that men and women are, in general, physiologically and psychologically different from each other, and thus they tend to excel at different things.
“On average,” asserts the engineer, “men and women biologically differ in many ways.” He then has the temerity to accuse women of “generally” displaying a “stronger interest in people rather than things” of having empathy and “openness” to “feelings and aesthetics” and of being less pushy and having less interest in “status” than male colleagues. Women, this guy says, are “more cooperative” than men and search out better “work-life balance.”
There’s much more, but I don’t want to further upset any women readers.
One of the problems with this kerfuffle was that the vast majority of the histrionic reactions on social media and elsewhere have misrepresented not only what the memo says but also its purpose. The memo was neither a screed nor anti-diversity. It was the kind of unvarnished, dispassionate, and meticulous case that I imagine many engineers offer. It’s difficult to believe anyone who read through it with an open mind could interpret the author’s notions as an attempt to consolidate the patriarchy or to make life less diverse in his field.
The other, bigger problem is that the reaction to it demonstrates that the author is completely right about the lack of ideological diversity and its consequences.
The unnamed engineer’s contentions about the bias at Google is a near-perfect summation of the dangers manifest in all close-minded institutions, including most of the news media and many universities. He points out that conflating “freedom from offense with psychological safety” shames people into silence. Further, he argues that these monocultures foster unhealthy environments where people can no longer honestly debate important topics. Finally, and most destructively, he says these bubbles then promote “extreme and authoritarian elements.”
Extreme: all disparities in representation are due to oppression
Authoritarian: we should discriminate to correct for this oppression
We see incidents of this close-mindedness all the time. In schools. In government. Just ask Brendan Eich, who was hounded out as CEO of Mozilla in 2013 for having the wrong opinion on gay marriage in 2008, despite zero evidence that he had ever discriminated against anyone in his life.
Or, better yet, just ask Danielle Brown, Google’s new VP of diversity, integrity, and governance, who wrote, in a response to the engineer’s memo, that “[d]iversity and inclusion are a fundamental part of our values and the culture,” before rebuking everything in it, telling employees that she won’t link to the letter because everyone disagrees with its contents. Rather than showing appreciation for diverse thinking among her ranks, Brown even goes on to insinuate that the engineer’s suggestions in the memo might undermine “discrimination laws.”
Does Brown believe that dissenting Google employees will now feel safer sharing their opinions when they see the company won’t stand by those making unpopular ones? Because, after all, any old VP of diversity, integrity, and governance can defend positions that confirm the biases of the majority of their workforce.
Of course, nothing in the letter states women aren’t as good as men or that women deserve less money or that women aren’t “suited” to be good at tech jobs or that they should be victimized by the company. Mostly the author theorizes as to why self-selection might account for some of the disparity at Google:
Note, I’m not saying that all men differ from women in the following ways or that these differences are ‘just.’ I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership.
Certainly this is well within the boundaries of legitimate debate. Or it used to be. There are still people who believe human beings are diverse and complicated, and judging them solely by sex or color is just a ham-fisted social experiment. “Treat people as individuals, not as just another member of their group,” says our engineer. His brand of American egalitarianism and idealism, however, is now frowned upon in large segments of society and at certain companies.
Google can take any political positions it likes. But its overwhelming power and reach into the everyday lives of so many Americans makes it a perfectly legitimate target for criticism, as well.
“If we can’t have an honest discussion about this, then we can never truly solve the problem,” writes the engineer. He must be new there.
Not long ago, an activist shareholder asked Eric Schmidt if conservatives and libertarians feel an “inclusive environment” working at Google. “I would start with my answer, which is we start from the principles of science at Google…” began Schmidt, who then began to argue that liberal positions are tantamount to “science.”
The engineer author does an admirable job in his memo explaining how the philosophical dispositions of both liberals and conservatives can bring very different things to a company. “Neither side,” he writes, “is 100% correct and both viewpoints are necessary for a functioning society or, in this case, company.” Whereas the Right can deny the science of evolution or climate change, the Left tends to deny the science of biological difference in IQ and sex, which leads to “enormous confirmation bias, changes what’s being studied, and maintains myths like social constructionism and the gender wage gap.”
This is exactly what Google has now confirmed with its reaction.