Leadership

Recent blowup at Google highlights the real mistake tech companies are making

Google headquarters in Mountain View, California.
Kimihiro Hostino | AFP | Getty Images
Google headquarters in Mountain View, California.

Like other biases, sexism and racism are often spread with the use of insidious coded language, inappropriate appeals to freedom of speech and harmful pseudoscientific data promoting biological difference as "inferiority."

For example, as a Latina in Silicon Valley, I've noticed that women and minorities promoted to leadership roles are often characterized as "unqualified." It grates on me, because it's a word rarely used to describe male leaders, even those fired for lack of performance. Funny, because studies show men, on average, apply for jobs when they meet 60 percent of the qualifications, where women don't apply until they've met 100 percent of them.

Perhaps it's this fatigue with unfair generalizations that elevated Silicon Valley's latest gender war to new heights following publication of an internal memo from a Google engineer asserting that women are ill-suited for technical jobs for biological reasons. (Read 10 of the most shocking quotes from the memo.)

The incident underscores a problem that's endemic at Google and much of the tech world — not only do tech companies often fail to create a diverse workplace, but they have a culture where employees feel empowered to claim that efforts to strike a balance put them under duress.

To be fair, the primary purpose of the memo was to condemn Google's purported "ideological echo chamber" and alleged "discrimination to reach equal representation of women in tech and leadership." A number of supporters have come forward. The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board, for example, suggested that the employee may have been fired for "advancing harmful gender stereotypes" or expressing views that are antithetical to Google's political culture, which the Journal characterized as "left wing."

While the WSJ acknowledged expressions of gender stereotypes may rise to unlawful sexual harassment (especially in the context of an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor into Google's treatment of women employees), I believe firing an employee for expressing antithetical views to his employer, if true, would be permissible grounds for termination by most private employers.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution applies to government interference with individuals' free speech rights. Nearly all tech employees are at-will employees who may be terminated with or without cause for any lawful reason. Private-sector employees do not enjoy constitutionally protected rights of free speech or privacy or freedom from search of tools such as work-issued computers and telephones.

"The incident underscores a problem that's endemic at Google and much of the tech world…they have a culture where employees feel empowered to claim that efforts to strike a balance put them under duress."

Nonetheless, in a note to employees, Google's CEO Sundar Pichai, asserted that "we strongly support the right of Googlers to express themselves, and much of what was in that memo is fair to debate…People must feel free to express dissent." He also suggested that employees "need to find a way to debate issues on which we might disagree—while doing so in line with our Code of Conduct."

Pichai explained the memo crossed the line by suggesting "a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to [technical] work is contrary to Google's basic values and to the Code Conduct".

Google was right to fire the employee who authored the memo because his rhetoric undermines the company's stated values. In a creative team work environment, it's counter-productive to retain employees that espouse on-the-job negative biases about the women with whom they collaborate.

However, the premise of the memo was that Google's inclusion initiatives were reverse discrimination, when by objective diversity standards, the company, as it admits on its website: "is miles from where we want to be."

The numbers are stark: At Google, 69 percent of workers are men, 31 percent are women. Among key positions, only 20 percent of engineering jobs and 25 percent of managers are women. Racial diversity is lacking too: the workforce is 56 percent white, 35 percent Asian, 4 percent Hispanic, 2 percent blacks, and those of two races or more are 4 percent of staff. The company also faces a Labor Department investigation for allegedly paying women less than men.

The memo's author claims to value diversity and inclusion. Yet, most of his assertions allege purported biological differences between men and women, which he states are "universal across human cultures." These statements are allegedly supported by evolutionary psychology, a field that has many detractors because of its alleged sexism, much as racial biology is no longer considered "scientific" by most biologists.

It is this attempt at pop biology that is the most incendiary aspect of this misguided memo especially for those who recall the use of biology to claim the inferiority of African-Americans. The author condemns 95 percent of social science because of bias but the science he believes in appears to be immune from similar criticism.

This whole blowup at Google underscores that tech companies are not diverse workplaces and efforts to foster diversity lead to conflict that, poorly handled, leads to backlash.

The memo goes at the heart of what Pichai says on the firm's diversity site: "A diverse mix of voices leads to better discussions, decisions, and outcomes." He's right. And it also boosts profits. Research from McKinsey & Company finds firms in the top quartile for racial diversity are 35 percent likelier to have better financial results. And firms in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent likelier to have stronger performance compared to average companies.

Companies must find ways to help employees realize that diversity means we come from different reference points and building shared understandings in the face of potential conflict is not easy. It is facilitated by respectful discourse about all people. It means educating oneself about what constitutes discrimination, one's civil rights at work, and being willing to work with people with different beliefs and backgrounds from our own.

That doesn't have to be politically correct. Indeed, to build effective teams, companies must embrace a variety of different views, including from those who acutely feel the loss of privilege as the culture and composition of a company changes. But they must also protect the ability of all employees to do their jobs, earn a livelihood and get paid fairly, notwithstanding colleagues' hostile views.

Commentary by Miriam Rivera, co-founder and managing partner of Ulu Ventures, an early stage venture capital fund focused on IT investments. Rivera worked at Google from 2001 until 2006, becoming vice president and deputy general counsel.

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