Balloon-bedecked and dissent-free: Google employees bicycling to work at the Googleplex in Mountain View, California. (Photo credit: Brooks Kraft LLC / CORBIS / GETTY)
Shut Up, They Explained
by Adam Keiper
August 21, 2017In Chaos Monkeys, his memoir about his rocky career in high tech, Antonio García Martínez lists a few pithy rules for understanding how Silicon Valley really works. The best of these insider insights: “Company culture is what goes without saying.” That is, if you want really to understand the firms vying to invent the future, pay less attention to how they describe themselves than to the actions they take. Watch what they do, not what they say.
That lesson was driven home last week after the tech publication Gizmodo published a document that had been circulating privately among Google employees for about a month. The document describes a stifling climate of opinion: “Google’s left bias has created a politically correct monoculture that maintains its hold by shaming dissenters into silence.” The document asserts that this corporate conformity prevents open discussion of Google’s policies encouraging diversity, especially gender diversity.
Those policies, the document says, are “unfair, divisive, and bad for business.” It offers a brief layman’s summary of some of the biological, psychological, and social-science findings about differences between men and women—suggesting that, at the population level, women tend to have more “openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics,” “higher agreeableness,” “higher anxiety,” and “lower stress tolerance” than men. In short, the gender gap that Google’s diversity efforts are meant to address may have causes other than, or in addition to, bias.
Once the document went public, the ensuing controversy unfolded rapidly and predictably. Press outlets called it a “screed” and even a “manifesto.” Critics called it “sexist” and “anti-diversity.” The author was revealed to be James Damore, a 28-year-old Google software engineer. Hot-take articles and countless tweets griped about his document’s gloss on the science. And a counterreaction soon began, with a few sober experts in the relevant scientific fields coming to Damore’s defense, joined by opponents of diversity programs as well as some of the more unhinged characters from the world of men’s-rights activism. Accusations of distortions, misrepresentations, and cherry-picking flew in both directions.
With lightning speed, the search behemoth canned Damore. “Portions of the memo violate our Code of Conduct and cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace,” wrote Google CEO Sundar Pichai—although he hastened to add that Damore wasn’t fired for criticizing the company’s policies: “The author had a right to express their views on those topics.” (Whatever led Pichai to use the gender-neutral pronoun “their,” he presumably did not notice the ironic implication that Damore’s free-expression rights were limited to toeing the company line.)
Outside of Silicon Valley, this controversy may well exhaust itself in a few days: All the virtue signaling, thought policing, anti-PC griping, concern trolling, and media swarming will peter out. But before the episode is forgotten, it’s worth taking a moment to consider what it reveals about the role of science in our public debates and about the role of Google in our public life.
First, on the science. To say that there is ample scientific evidence of biological and psychological differences between men and women, including differences related to cognition and personality, would be an understatement. However, there is also a mountain of journalistic and anecdotal evidence that the high-tech industry is bro-y, fratty, and weird about women. (This is a major theme in the HBO comedy Silicon Valley.) Perhaps the most egregious recent example comes from Uber; a former female employee earlier this year published a lengthy account alleging sexism and sexual harassment at the company.
How women should be treated in Silicon Valley is not a scientific question, it is a political one. It cannot be resolved or even fully understood through science alone: The real-life experiences of the employees harassed or discriminated against—either because of sexism or in the name of diversity—are not best understood using the tools of science. Science can inform the debate over whether equal representation of men and women in a given profession is a realistic or practical goal. But whether it is a just goal and whether the efforts used to reach that goal are fair to all involved are matters that science cannot speak to.
Second, this episode has serious implications for the public perception of Google. Hundreds of millions of people rely on the company to provide access to information of all kinds; millions more depend on it for storing their own personal and business information. But the company’s decision to fire an employee for expressing mainstream views—views that are particularly common among conservatives—could understandably lead some Google users to wonder whether the company can be trusted.
This speaks to one of Google’s greatest assets, one that is not on its books: its reputation. No one outside the company knows the details of how Google sorts through search results. It is easy to imagine that the company could systematically bias results—for reasons of profit or politics. The fact that Google finds certain views to be unacceptable for its employees to hold and express could reasonably lead users to wonder if it might be taking steps to protect them from such supposedly odious views. The possibility of an erosion of trust in Google is not just a matter of the company’s bottom line, but given the company’s importance for how citizens obtain news and political information, it could be a matter of serious public concern as well.
Watch: Google Employee James Damore, Author of Diversity Memo, Is Fired
James Damore, the Google employee who wrote a controversial internal document about diversity initiatives at the internet giant, has been fired for violating the company’s code of conduct. Damore told Bloomberg on late Monday that he had been fired, just hours after Google CEO Sundar Pichai said the employee had violated its Code of Conduct by “advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.” James Valles reports.
You may have heard that a Google software engineer anonymously circulated a memo about “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber.” The tech blog Motherboard reports that the memo went viral within the company. In it, the engineer argues that Google has created a “politically correct monoculture” in which honest discussion of its hiring practices is impossible.