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The Google memo on diversity should be a learning opportunity

Google's knee-jerk reaction did not tackle the root cause of the controversial employee memo

Google has been thrust into the media spotlight after the company fired software engineer James Damore in response to the publication of his sexist memo.

Damore argued that men are more biologically predisposed towards tech jobs, and likened diversity initiatives to discrimination.

Google fell under immediate pressure to react with calls for Damore’s dismissal, both internally and externally, and the company obliged almost immediately. In doing so, a valuable teaching and learning moment was missed – both for Google and Damore.

Damore’s views showed a worrying lack of education and understanding – an ingrained bias and belief system that he likely developed over time through his educational, cultural and personal experiences. Yet it is important to recognise that while the memo was rejected by many staff members, it also found support among some.

The knee-jerk dismissal will leave those who agree with him to feel that they cannot question company policy on diversity, and Google’s silence will force them to draw conclusions to their concerns from alt-right activists espousing dangerous and hateful views. It further divides already tense lines for those who feel diversity programmes are being force-fed to them.

This is a difficult situation for Google, and exacerbated by the hatred and abuse its employees have been subjected to in the aftermath of the decision. The central challenge for the company is determining how to involve employees in the debate without being tolerant of hateful views.

Google needs to inform, inspire and educate employees in a way that is as inclusive as possible. Roadmaps need to be effective and not perceived as “tick-box” exercises that do little, or even hinder progression. The challenge is one of long-term change management, not short-term discipline.

Telling the full story

The publication of the memo led to Google facing considerable pressure from current employees and thought leaders, while Damore was embraced by online trolls and misogynists. By firing Damore, the company bowed to its PR needs, but did not tackle the root of the problem.

The company did not explain the rationale for the firing or reinforce the value of diversity programmes, and in doing so reinforced the accusations made of them by Damore.

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There is a wealth of research that contradicts gender stereotypes in tech – indicating, for example, that women are considered better coders when biases are removed; showing that having just one female on the board of directors lessens a company’s chances of going bust by 20%; or demonstrating that gender diversity increases radical innovation.

There are also those who have done an excellent job of refuting the research Damore cited. By not engaging with his arguments in a patient and intellectually robust way, Google did a disservice to women who have to deal with hardship and harassment at work, and arguably enabled their critics by not responding in a careful and measured way.

Having difficult conversations

A plurality of views and opinions is valuable for society and business. Diversity is valuable because it leads to inclusion, which means that challenges and reservations about diversity programmes should be discussed openly and frankly. Employees should be able to voice concerns within their companies, and management should have a process of discussing and addressing these.

We have made great strides towards increased gender and racial diversity with legislation such as pay gap reporting, which will begin in April 2018 in the UK. But with this comes the risk of diversity fatigue, and the responsibility to ensure the conversation on diversity continues and evolves.

Thankfully, organisations are realising the necessity of diversity and inclusion, but with the gender rhetoric ever increasing in volume, there is a concern the discussion is reaching a level of toxicity that is failing our ambitions for an inclusive workforce and society.

The value of inclusion

The need for a systematic approach to inclusion was the basis of Tech London Advocates’ women in tech AAA Awards, which reward companies through awareness, adoption and advocacy of the need for gender diversity. These are awarded to companies who understand the gender landscape in business and engage openly regarding their diversity efforts, as well as those who effect change that minimises bias and maximises inclusion.

Damore should have been asked to explain how his preference for roles dominated by a single gender will avoid groupthink, or build products that cater to those outside of the in-group. Rather than firing him, Google should have taken measures such as diversity training, meeting senior female tech engineers and talking to girls learning computing at school.

By refusing to engage, Google bowed to its PR needs rather than open a discussion about diversity. Given black employees make up just 2% of the company’s workforce, refusing to engage on the issue of diversity is worrying.

Diversity requires inclusion and a collaborative environment – one that values open participation from individuals with different ideas and perspectives. Building this often means reacting with patience even when confronting offensive and inflammatory views.

Russ Shaw is founder of Tech London Advocates (TLA) and Global Tech Advocates; Sarah Luxford is co-lead of TLA’s women in tech working group.

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