The Google Memo (Manifesto) Controversy

The Google Memo (Manifesto) Controversy 

As a former woman engineer (coincidentally an ex-Googler from the Mountain View campus), who transitioned to the field of psychology, I feel compelled to comment on the controversy over the (ex-)Googler's memo/manifesto.  For context, here's the full Manifesto.

When I first read the manifesto, I found myself agreeing to most of the author's points, especially in the need for tolerance to diversity of view-points in the workplace, and, yes, any diversity plan, when taken to the extreme, may cause harm. I still cringe at the memory of hearing about a leaked memo (I don't know if there really was any such memo, but there were certainly rumors about it, when I was at Google during 2007/2008) that purportedly asked hiring managers to lower the bar for woman engineers to be hired. This kind of thinking is insulting to women engineers and certainly unfair to other qualified male candidates - women engineers do not need concessions - we are as qualified in abilities and knowledge, to work in engineering. However, I differ from the author, in that I strongly support steps taken to level the playing field, such as providing support and encouraging girls in engineering to excel, and to fight gender stereotypical roles and sexism, that are obstacles to women in engineering.

I clearly fit the female gender stereotype that the Googler discusses (except for the extroversion, to be exact) - A high-paying job in technology that comes with stress didn't make sense for me to pursue, especially as I cared more for making a direct impact on the lives of people, rather than gadgets and technology per se, and certainly did not care to pursue power or status. Work-family balance was also on the top of my priority. I realize that it was much easier for me to do the switch (from a high paying job) to a vocation that aligned with my traits and interests, than for male colleagues who might have similar inclinations as me, due to the gender stereotypical role expectations.  In this too, I agree with the manifesto: Highly inflexible gender stereotypes and role expectations of men do keep many men in high paying, less personally satisfying jobs.

As the author states, there are possible non-bias causes of the gender gap in technology. Just stating this does not make it discriminatory. I also find nothing offensive if the stereotypical gender traits listed is due to sex differences in the brain and confirmed by science (as mentioned here - "One does not need to deny science and biological differences to fight discrimination"). However, the problem, is how such trait differences (whether they are due to cultural and/or biological factors) have been used historically (and continues to be done) to oppress groups and to further sexism and racism. The problem is when gender group traits (whether due to cultural and/or biological factors) are listed as evidence for why women are not suitable for engineering, or positions of leadership, or other positions of power or high-paying jobs, thereby discriminating and creating a hostile workplace for women in general. One can argue that it is these very traits (collaboration, openness, empathy) that will make a good leader (in technology or any field), but that might be a digression from the discussion at hand.

I agree with the author on many other points as well: Google seeking to fulfill a quota of 50-percent of women in Science and Technology could be unrealistic. In fact, I do believe enforcing quotas in any field can be harmful - rather, we should be focusing on removing barriers, and making the field attractive for all to pursue. The gender stereotype listed in the manifesto clearly privileges me as a woman in my life choices, interests and inclinations to pursue my second career in psychology after more than a decade in engineering. I did not find the manifesto personally offensive, as I identify with that gender stereotype and am proud of the traits that are mentioned. However, being a woman, and having been at the receiving end of hate crimes and sexism during my years as an undergraduate minority student in Engineering (in India, I should mention), it is not hard for me to also see the harmful and corrosive effects of such a manifesto, which is in contrast to some men, or others in positions of privilege, who are having a hard time comprehending why this manifesto could be offensive. Clearly, there is need for more understanding and empathy from those in privilege towards those being discriminated, and openness to hearing each others' experiences.

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Ironically, the ex-Googler's anti-diversity program manifesto stating that women are inherently not suitable (please see UPDATE section below) for engineering clearly demonstrates why we need diversity trainings and programs in the first place - to have empathy and sensitivity for the experiences of others, especially since racism and sexism are real problems that create hostile work places. Gender (/racial/any) stereotypes that exclude and discriminate groups is a real problem. In the end, that is what lead to the firing of the author of the manifesto - a clear lack of empathy on diversity issues, especially for the experiences of those who continue to face several transgressions in the work place due to sexism. Google CEO Sundar Pichai's comments on why the Googler was fired can be found here.

Reading a few of the comments and furor from both sides on social media over this issue shows that the manifesto author however had it right that there is increasingly less tolerance in hearing different viewpoints. 

These are my personal reflections. I am open to hearing differing opinions and  any questions and feedback that promote discussions, but not to blind hate in the comments section. Thanks for reading!

UPDATE (10/06/2018)

We have just witnessed the most partisan and ugly politics over the confirmation of the Supreme Court Judge. However, in spite of the ugliness, there were a few politicians who were striving to do the right thing, rather than trying to simply “win” at all costs. In my view, some of them were Senator Jeff Flake, who asked for the FBI investigation, and Senator Lisa Murkowski who voted per her conscience, and Senator Heidi Heitkamp who announced her vote without playing politics.

We all have our biases and prejudices, and we tend to adopt a stance that reinforces them. I am examining some of my own biases - which led me to re-read the original Google Memo by ex-Googler James Damore. This time, I completely agree with what he had written then - there was nothing sexist in it (as wrongly assumed by some, including me). There was really nothing in the Memo that indicated that women were in any way less capable than men or inherently unsuitable for Engineering. As a reader (Darren Robinson) pointed out, the Memo was simply pointing out gender differences, and how different work structures might be better suited for different traits. In fact, the Memo was saying that the current work structures reflect a more masculine point of view and value system, and was suggesting to make changes to accommodate the other gender. I think the real problem why people were offended was because this is a patriarchal society, and “masculine” traits are valued more. So when they read the Memo stating the differences in gender traits, they just jumped to the conclusion that it was sexist.

It is time for us to start building bridges and to truly listen to the other side, with open hearts and minds.