A Few More Thoughts About Google
By Lauren Giella
Most of us have already been inundated with the story of Google's HR nightmare, where engineer James Damore distributed an internal document condemning the “leftist” environment, wherein he felt his conservative view must be hidden out of fear of harassment. But the most astonishing point of the memo was Damore's suggestion that there is a biological difference between men and women that is to blame for the persistent gender representation gap in the tech world. He also denounced Google's diversity initiatives, aimed at recruiting more women and minorities, suggesting that such programs “lower the bar” at the company and their beneficiaries do not deserve the jobs.
Once the memo was published online by Motherboard, social media exploded with mixed responses from Googlers, engineers and others in and out of the STEM world. Soon after, Damore was fired for violating Google’s employee policies. As a result, a strong debate erupted whether his termination was justifiable (yes) and if Google had infringed on his First Amendment rights (no).
And that was the angle of most of the media coverage surrounding the memo. While this is an important debate to have, a very essential part of the conversation has been left out: The sexist assertions Damore made and the response from women at Google.
What About the Women?
In an interview with Business Insider, a Google employee, referred to only as Lauren, expressed the real issue at hand regarding the release of the memo. “[Women] are not being asked how we feel about [the James Damore memo], and that's a really important part of the situation that no one is focusing on...What about all the women? No one is asking us to respond to the claims he made about us.”
Lauren explained that while women make up over half of the world’s population, they are still considered a minority inside of Google and take offense to Damore’s claims. “To have us all lumped into one sort of category like that and have such a baseless claim made about who we are, and to have it positioned as fact, I don’t know how we could not feel anything but attacked by it.”
Sexism, as Usual
This kind of workplace sexism is clearly inappropriate and unprofessional, but unfortunately, it is nothing new. Women in tech and engineering have been dealing with discrimination for decades. Women are no strangers to being second-guessed, overlooked, underpaid, underappreciated, and uncredited. But this memo, released in what appears to be a more progressive time, is a chilling reminder that society has so much more to go in the battle for equality. It shows that women, and other minorities, working in fields traditionally dominated by white males still need to prove their place.
There is no scientific evidence to confirm that women are inherently less skilled at coding or computer science than men. There is more compelling evidence, however, that few women enter the STEM field because of generations of social conditioning that has reinforced traditional gender roles; telling children that LEGOS and trucks are only for boys and dolls and makeup are only for girls. Furthermore, the “data” Damore used in his memo was cherry picked and placed to construct an incomplete narrative.
The Actual Minority
In the memo, Damore outlined the ways in which he feels like a minority in the workplace. He claimed that the liberal setting at Google is not an intellectually diverse environment where his conservative views can be safely expressed without judgement from his peers. He also criticized Google's commitment to hiring more diverse employees for being detrimental to the company. Damore believes that women and minorities at Google are given jobs solely to fulfill specific quotas, and not at all because of their skills or experience. In Damore's mind, these initiatives are unfair because he feels left out or discriminated against as a white male. But he is really in no position to play the victim here. White men still dominate Silicon Valley: they make most of the big decisions and get paid more (Google is currently under investigation by Department of Labor for “systematic compensation disparities”).
It's Not What You Say, but How You Say it...
Even if Damore had a legitimate reason to be frustrated, his memo was framed in a way that makes it difficult to facilitate a positive conversation. It would have been one thing if he used the document to open a fair and thoughtful debate about his concerns; but instead, he decided to weave in offensive assertions based on zero fact and incoherent logic.
Like my mother always says: It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it (Although, in this case, it's also about what he said). This could have been a much more constructive experience if he had outlined his opinions in a way that didn’t belittle his coworkers. He was not fired because he expressed his political views, he was fired because he shared his views in a way that expressed a gross lack of respect for his fellow engineers, thus creating a hostile work environment.
Engineer Yonatan Zunger shared a response to the memo in a blog post saying, “Engineering is all about cooperation, collaboration, and empathy for both your colleagues and your customers. If someone told you that engineering was a field where you could get away with not dealing with people or feelings, then I’m very sorry to tell you that you have been lied to…These traits which the manifesto described as ‘female’ are the core traits which make someone successful at engineering."
Who Belongs at the Head of the Table?
The concept of “male” and “female” traits Damore discussed in the memo might hold some truth in terms of general (very, very general) differences in men and women’s dispositions, but are seemingly irrelevant when discussing one’s engineering abilities. Additionally, by noting how the “average” woman thinks and behaves, Damore perpetuates the two-front battle many women face in male-dominated fields.
First, Damore’s claim that “male” characteristics are better equipped for engineering and leadership furthers the notion that women must act like men to be respected and successful. This is obviously false; as there are several women running the world’s top companies. Even if it is true that women handle leadership roles differently than men, that is not necessarily a bad thing. There is no one right way to lead. However, generations of a male-dominated societies have conditioned people to associate CEOs with Y chromosomes.
Not only does this line of thinking reinforce the belief that women are inherently subordinate to men, but it also makes the idea of a woman in power seem somehow against human nature. Therefore, women feel like they don't belong in positions of authority and should be less ambitious or assertive. As a result, there is a vicious self-fulfilling prophecy of self-doubt that prevents women from seeking and obtaining leadership roles.
Empowered Women Empower Women
While on the one hand, Damore's claims pits women against men in a battle to make their voices heard, the other creates a nasty complex that pits women against each other. Animosity among women trying not to be like “most girls” is persistent in our culture and creates an unhealthy competition that inhibits mutual empowerment.
Imagine what could be achieved if women worked together to support each other to move up in the workforce and collaborate on projects. Imagine what could be achieved if women stopped wasting time trying to act and think how people expect them to, and put all that effort into doing great work. Imagine what could be achieved if women were treated like equally valued members of a team with brilliant skills and insightful perspectives, instead of whiny inferiors who don’t deserve to be there.
Which brings back the main point here: We need to hear about the experiences of women in the tech. Conservative, liberal, black, white-- everyone. This is a great opportunity to take the conversation Damore was trying to start and do it the right way. This includes allowing women to have a platform to share their responses to the document that called them unqualified for their positions and discussing other obstacles they face in the workplace.
Unfortunately, these types of conversations do not happen often enough. Perhaps this is because, usually, when women speak up about discrimination at work, they are considered to be bossy, complaining or playing the victim. Pushing this narrative is a common tactic that men use to further discredit and dismiss women as unfit to handle the demands of their jobs. This one Tweet pretty much sums in up (and the clap-back responses were a spectacle to behold):
Yet Damore was greeted with sympathy when he discussed the hardships of being a white male in the workplace while simultaneously patronizing woman….
Not asking women to participate in a debate that directly concerns not only defines misogyny, but continues it. By speaking up, women show that they refuse to be brushed aside and are determined to be valued as equally qualified members of a team. By providing these platforms, the media can put pressure on companies to listen to their female employees.
Don't Lose Hope
For example, Y Combinator interviewed some female engineers as they shared their thought on the Google memo and what it means for them going forward in their profession.
These are the conversations worth having.
Without them, the system of discrimination and intimidation women feel working in traditionally male-dominated fields will continue. Women must be empowered to pursue whatever job they love and to work hard to earn leadership roles; they must be allowed to perform the tasks they are capable of doing without being constantly second-guessed; and they must be encouraged to speak up when others doubt them or try to box them in.
Additionally, if there was ever an any doubt, our site is full of amazing, badass women in tech who are continuing to prove people like Damore wrong by showing that women do belong in the tech world.