The Google Memo Controversy - Revisited

As a former woman engineer who worked at Google before transitioning to my current vocation as a psychotherapist, I feel compelled to share my own reflections on the controversy over the ex-Google engineer James Damore’s memo.

We all have our biases and prejudices and we tend to adopt a stance that reinforces them. We are often influenced by others’ opinions and by the source of the opinion. Therefore, it is not surprising that many made pronouncements about the memo solely based on news sources (either left-leaning or right-leaning) than from critically reading what was communicated in the original document. Real change and growth, however, can occur only when we examine our own biases and incorrect assumptions and are truly open to broaden our perspectives. I am, therefore, examining some of my own incorrect assumptions and initial reactions to the memo.

I wrote the following blog shortly after James Damore had been fired from Google. I am marking in bold, my incorrect assumptions at that time, which I will address at the end.

ORIGINAL BLOG: 08/09/2017

When I read the Google manifesto, I found myself agreeing to most of the author's points, especially in the need for tolerance to diversity of viewpoints in the workplace, and, yes, any diversity plan, when taken to the extreme, may cause harm. For example, I still cringe at the memory of hearing about a leaked memo (as a woman engineer at Google in 2007/2008) that purportedly asked hiring managers to lower  the bar for woman engineers, so that more of us could be hired. This kind of thinking is insulting to women engineers - we do not need concessions - we are as qualified in abilities and training 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 an obstacle to women in engineering.

 I clearly fit the female gender stereotype that James Damore discusses. 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 memo: 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 - 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, as done in this Google Manifesto**. One can argue that it is these very traits (collaboration, openness, empathy) that will make a good leader in technology or any other 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 other’s experiences.

Ironically, James Damore’s anti-diversity program manifesto stating that women are inherently not suitable 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 or other stereotypes that exclude and discriminate groups is a real problem. In the end, that is what led 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 James Damore 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 in stating that “there is certainly increasingly less tolerance in hearing different viewpoints.”

**UPDATE: 10/08/2018

At the time that I wrote the above article, my views were colored by my own personal and painful experiences of sexism, and by the reactions in Silicon Valley in which people cried “sexism” perhaps even before reading the Google memo. In fact the memo I read online was referred to as an “anti-diversity screed”and “anti-diversity manifesto” . When I re-read the original memo, this time with a clear intention of keeping an open mind, I see that 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. The memo was simply pointing out gender differences, and how different work structures might be better suited for different traits.

For those of us who felt offended by the memo, we need to examine our own historical or personal contexts, and unresolved issues and traumas that were triggered and the assumptions and conclusions that we automatically made. Our feelings are always valid, but we have to be open to questioning the assumptions made.

It is time for us to start building bridges and to truly listen to the other side with open hearts and minds. This begins with self-awareness and self-acceptance, for it is only when we can accept and own all parts of ourselves, including our own biases and prejudices, that we will stop projecting our disowned parts onto others.