Google Misfires on Diversity
Let's concede that Silicon Valley isn't the most enlightened workplace in the world. Men predominate overwhelmingly, especially in the upper ranks. Women report being harassed and underpaid. Stories of appalling corporate culture are distressingly common. What's the best way to approach these problems?
James Damore, an engineer at Alphabet Inc.'s Google, offered a few ideas in a memo that leaked online last week. It's an awkward document, and makes some dubious and tactless claims. But its underlying argument is worth airing: There are many reasons besides alleged bias that could be leading to Google's gender gap, he said, and they ought to be considered in trying to solve the problem.
Internet outrage quickly swelled. The author was denounced as a sexist and worse. The official corporate response was that the argument should never have been aired in the first place. Google's vice president for diversity said that the memo "advanced incorrect assumptions about gender," and that was that.
Now Damore is out of a job. And in the name of diversity the bounds of permissible debate have been narrowed yet further.
This isn't good for anyone. There are many supposed reasons that women are underrepresented in technology, some valid, some not. Foreclosing discussion of the matter -- even ineptly phrased discussion -- will hardly help. To the contrary, it threatens to diminish the very concept of diversity. It feeds the debilitating culture of grievance-airing and offense-taking that increasingly defines civic debate and substitutes for reasoned argument. It impinges on free speech. And it's exhausting.
More to the point, it can obscure real problems. Google is facing an investigation and a lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Labor for allegedly underpaying female staff. Nearly 70 percent of its workers are male. In some technical fields the skew is even worse. More broadly, engineering schools still graduate many more men than women, making it difficult for technology companies to achieve parity in hiring. (At Bloomberg LP, 68 percent of workers are male.)
Yet an employee trying to grapple with these problems -- clumsily but earnestly -- has now been shown the door, thanks mostly to performative online outrage. Google is free to fire employees as it sees fit, of course. But this isn't the way that free societies should debate matters of public importance. It's a recipe for more polarization, more animosity, more misery. It's a good way to ensure that no one ever changes their minds about anything.
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