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Google's sacking of 'anti-diversity' employee is right under the circumstances

Silicon Valley is struggling to break out of its boys' club image. Google itself is fighting allegations of gender pay gap. What could it have done?


Days after an explosive “anti-diversity” memo penned by a Google employee went viral, the search giant has reportedly fired him. The employee – a senior software engineer named James Damore – had his identity leaked on Twitter last night. Google CEO Sundar Pichai has in a strongly-worded email to employees stated that Damore (whom he didn’t specifically name) violated the company’s much-valued Code of Conduct. While there was certainly a place for conservative opinions within the company, anyone who perpetuated “gender stereotypes” didn’t stand a chance.

“Portions of the memo violate our Code of Conduct and cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace. Our job is to build great products for users that make a difference in their lives. To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK,” Pichai said in his email titled ‘Our Words Matter’.

This is a strong, definitive response from Google that comes a day after the slightly tempered reaction from its newly appointed VP of Diversity, Danielle Brown. She had stated that Damore’s views are not “that I or this company endorses, promotes or encourages…. However part of building an open, inclusive environment means fostering a culture in which those with alternative views, including different political views, feel safe sharing their opinions.” It failed to clear whether Google was taking any action against Damore or not. ALSO READ: Google’s gender ratios show that it is hardly delivering on promises of inclusion

Pichai reportedly cut short his vacation to rush to the company HQ in the wake of this crisis, and his email to employees makes it clear that Google envisages a workplace culture “that is free of harassment, intimidation, bias and unlawful discrimination.” Google, one of the trendsetters in Silicon Valley, prides itself for fostering a gender-neutral environment. Though its workforce demographics may not support its intent yet, given only 31 percent of Google’s employees are women, there have been nearly no stories of workplace sexism or harassment within the company. Well, nothing that we know of yet. Unlike in the case of Uber.

Google is known to have very low tolerance for those who make racist or sexist remarks, and especially those that violate its Code of Conduct. That is Google’s Bible and anyone who fails to adhere to it is fired. While the anti-diversity memo did have a few takers in conservative tech circles, most Google employees dissented on internal discussion boards and demanded that the writer be sacked. An employee told Recode that the environment had become really toxic. “It’s a microcosm of America,” he said, referring to the rise of conservatism in the era of President Trump.

Another employee told CNN, “Can someone who writes things like that interview women or black people fairly? Can they give and receive feedback to and from women/people of color appropriately and reasonably? To suggest that these kind of attitudes don’t bleed into someone’s day to day work seems dangerously optimistic.” ALSO READ: Google executive’s anti-diversity ‘manifesto’ leaked, creates a storm in the company

For Google, this crisis comes at a time when it’s already battling charges made by the US Department of Labor (DoL) which claims to have found “compelling evidence” about the huge gender pay gap in the company. DoL has stated that there are “systemic compensation disparities against women pretty much across the entire workforce” at Google. This is in addition to the fact that only a fourth of leadership positions at Google go to women; and only a fifth of ‘tech’ jobs are held by female employees. In such a scenario, to not get rid of an openly misogynistic employee would have been conflicting for Google.

While Silicon Valley might be divided over Damore’s sacking, if Google had failed to take stringent action against him, it would have meant that the company was complicit in his views… and those clearly go against the ethic Google promotes. Sample this: Google hosts Diversity Core, a program to raise awareness about “unconscious bias” in the organization. In the past, Google has approached Hollywood to make shows and films that boost the “girls-who-code” image such that young girls are inspired to take up computer science (CS). Since 2010, Google has invested more than $40 million in organizations working towards bringing CS education to more women across the world. ALSO READ: Uber CEO orders ‘urgent’ probe after ex-employee alleges sexual harassment, gender bias at company

After all this, it would have been hypocritical of Google to bear with an employee who’s blatantly gender-biased. While the firing might reflect poorly on Google’s principles of free expression, not many can blame the company for the decision. Silicon Valley itself is struggling to break out of its “boys club” image. Major companies are fighting lawsuits and allegations against managements partaking in sustained sexism. The tech world, which boasts of a big immigrant population, is threatened by increasingly protectionist policies under Trump. Google might have just set a precedent by firing Damore. Free expression isn’t free; it has clauses. Note!

  • Published Date: August 8, 2017 11:24 AM IST
  • Updated Date: August 9, 2017 5:44 PM IST