Case study exploring gender in a Silicon Valley company
In recent years, Google has been under major scrutiny for gender discrimination, and the Department of Labor is investigating Google for a potential gender pay gap. Also, Silicon Valley has been exposed as a community that repeatedly discriminates against women and other minorities, and research shows that the gender disparity in tech jobs is pervasive and widespread. As a result, Google has made a major push to create a more diverse and inclusive work culture.
In August of 2017, Google fired a male software engineer, James Damore, after he internally posted a memo that relied on inaccurate gender stereotypes to criticize Google’s implementation of its diversity and inclusion initiative. The memo was leaked to the press, which lead to a public outcry and exacerbated an already tense time for gender diversity in Silicon Valley.
Around the same time as Damore’s firing, a white supremacist protest that turned violent in Charlottesville, Virginia, heightened an already tense conversation about the complexities of free speech in America. The overall conflicting views on free speech are split down ideological lines: Conservatives say they aren’t free to express their views because liberals will accuse them of being politically incorrect, while liberals believe that in an effort towards being more inclusive, people should avoid using language that is potentially offensive to marginalized communities.
Damore says he was trying to point out that sometimes conservative viewpoints aren’t welcome at Google because of its liberal “echo chamber.” The memo also says that Google discriminates against certain employees and offers development opportunities “only for people with a certain gender or race,” and that Google has lowered the bar by hiring diverse candidates. Damore believes that in order to have a truly diverse culture, Google needs to create a safe space for more conservative views.
Damore’s memo also states that one of the central reasons there are fewer women than men in tech is women are biologically different from men. Damore then references scientifically unfounded gender stereotypes to support this line of reasoning. Some of the stereotypes he uses include: women are more neurotic than men; women are less capable of handling stress; and women are better at relationships than men because men are better at “things.”
After the memo was leaked, many criticized the contents, calling Damore and his memo “anti-diversity,” with Google employees and some of the general public saying they were offended by its contents. Critics said Damore’s memo is exactly the type of discrimination that keeps women out of the tech industry, and some female Google employees expressed discomfort at having to work with Damore.
The day after the memo was leaked, Google’s VP of Diversity and Inclusion, Danielle Brown, issued a statement criticizing the discriminatory content of the memo, saying it did not align with Google’s dedication to creating a truly diverse workforce. Three days after the public release of the memo, Damore confirmed Google had fired him.
Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, released a statement explaining the decision to fire Damore. Pichai’s statement points out that some of Damore’s criticisms of Google’s attempts at creating a truly diverse culture are valid, but the memo violated parts of the company’s code of conduct “by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.” Pichai also writes, “To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.”
Those who disagree with the firing say it confirms Damore’s main argument: that Google does have a liberal echo chamber; Google is intolerant to conservative views; and that its diversity efforts have actually backfired and stifled diversity. Others who disagree point to Damore’s right to free speech. However, there is some legal ambiguity in this case because companies have the legal right to fire an employee who makes statements that could create a hostile working environment for other employees in a protected class (gender, age, sexual orientation, etc.), particularly in an at-will state like California, where Google is headquartered. But, in California, an employee cannot be fired for their political views, complicating the legal aspects of this situation even further. Damore sought out legal counsel after Google fired him, and he is currently deciding whether or not to sue for wrongful termination.
Those who believe Google made the right decision by firing Damore point out that the company has made a very public commitment to creating a diverse and inclusive culture, and to have an openly discriminatory employee breaks that commitment. Keeping Damore around could also negatively impact morale among employees, create a hostile working environment, and lead to a backslide in culture. Additionally, Google has a peer review process, whereby employees review one another’s performance. These reviews directly influence potential raises, bonuses, and promotions, so Damore’s critics question whether he could be trusted to give fair reviews when he has openly discriminated against his female colleagues in the memo.
- Legally, Google’s firing of Damore may or may not be problematic, but is Google’s firing of Damore ethical?
- Would you have made the same decision if you were Pichai?
- Is it ethical for an organization to fire someone who expresses beliefs that don’t align with the overall culture?
- Do efforts towards a more diverse work culture stifle employees from speaking out? What can leaders do to avert this potential outcome?
You may find the Center’s Framework for Ethical Decision Making useful in thinking through these questions.
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Google's culture conundrum
Sara Tangdall is the Business, Leadership, and Social Sector Ethics Program Coordinator at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.