Google's Ideological Echo Chamber
"Google's Ideological Echo Chamber", also known as "the Google memo", originated as an internal memo, dated July 2017, by US-based Google engineer James Damore about Google's diversity policies. Damore was fired for violating the company's code of conduct.
The memo and Google's subsequent dismissal of Damore in August 2017 were widely discussed in the media.
Course of events
James Damore has said that he became motivated to write a memo after attending an unrecorded Google diversity program, whose rhetoric he described as largely "shaming and 'no, you can't say that, that's sexist'". Damore wrote the memo while on a flight to China.
Calling the culture at Google an "ideological echo chamber", the memo asserts that while discrimination exists, it is extreme to hold that all disparities are due to oppression, and that it is "authoritarian" to correct for this with reverse discrimination. Instead, it argues that the gender disparity can be partially explained by biological differences between women and men. According to Damore, those differences include women generally having a stronger interest in people rather than things, that women tend to be more social, more artistic, and more prone to neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance). The memorandum also lists multiple suggestions on ways to use those differences in order to increase women's representation in tech without resorting to discrimination.
The memo is dated July 2017 and was originally shared on an internal mailing list. It was later updated to begin with a paragraph affirming the author's opposition to workplace sexism and the use of stereotypes. On August 5, the memo was published by Gizmodo. The memo's publication resulted in a controversy across social media, and public criticism of the memo and its author from several Google employees. According to Wired, Google's internal forums showed some support for Damore, who said he received private thanks from employees who were afraid to come forward.
Damore was fired by Google on August 7, 2017. The same day, prior to being fired, Damore filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (case no. 32-CA-203891). The complaint is marked as "8(a)(1) Coercive Statements (Threats, Promises of Benefits, etc.)".[clarification needed] A subsequent statement from Google asserted that its executives were unaware of the complaint when they fired Damore, as it is illegal to fire an employee in retaliation of an NLRB complaint. Following his firing, Damore announced he would pursue legal action against Google.[needs update]
Google's VP of Diversity, Danielle Brown, responded to the memo on August 8: "Part of building an open, inclusive environment means fostering a culture in which those with alternative views, including different political views, feel safe sharing their opinions. But that discourse needs to work alongside the principles of equal employment found in our Code of Conduct, policies, and anti-discrimination laws". Google's CEO Sundar Pichai wrote a note to Google employees, supporting Brown's formal response, and adding that many of the contents of the documents were fair to debate. His explanation read "to suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK [...] At the same time, there are co-workers who are questioning whether they can safely express their views in the workplace (especially those with a minority viewpoint). They too feel under threat, and that is also not OK." Unauthorized ads criticizing Pichai and Google for the firing were put up shortly after. Damore characterized the response by Google executives as having "shamed" him for his views. CNN described the fallout as "perhaps the biggest setback to what has been a foundational premise for [Google] employees: the freedom to speak up about anything and everything".
Damore gave interviews to Bloomberg Technology and to the YouTube channels of Canadian professor Jordan Peterson, and podcaster Stefan Molyneux. Damore stated that he wanted his first interviews to be with media who were not hostile. He wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, detailing the history of the memo and Google's reaction, followed by interviews for Reason magazine, Reddit's "IAmA" section, CNN, CNBC, Business Insider, and political commentator Ben Shapiro.
In response to the memo, Google's CEO planned an internal "town hall" meeting, fielding questions from employees on inclusivity. The meeting was cancelled a short time before it was due to start, over safety concerns as "our Dory questions appeared externally this afternoon, and on some websites, Googlers are now being named personally". Outlets found to be posting these names, with pictures, included 4chan, Breitbart News, and Milo Yiannopoulos's blog. Danielle Brown, Google's VP for diversity, was harassed online, and temporarily disabled her Twitter account.
In 2018 a lawsuit was filed by Damore's attorney.
On the science
Responses from scientists who study gender and psychology reflected the controversial nature of the science Damore cited.
Some commentators in the academic community expressed broad support, saying he had gotten the science right, such as Debra Soh, a sexual neuroscientist at York University in Toronto; Jordan Peterson, Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto; Lee Jussim, a professor of social psychology at Rutgers University; and Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychology professor at University of New Mexico. David P. Schmitt, former professor of psychology at Bradley University; said that the memo was right on average groups differences, but one cannot use it to judge individuals.
Others said that he had got the science wrong and relied on data that was suspect, outdated, irrelevant, or otherwise flawed; these included Gina Rippon, chair of cognitive brain imaging at Aston University; Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania; evolutionary biologist Suzanne Sadedin; Rosalind Barnett, a psychologist at Brandeis University, and Caryl Rivers, a professor of journalism at Boston University.
Journalistic coverage of the science behind the memo reflected these concerns; Angela Saini said that Damore failed to understand the research he cited, while John Horgan criticized the track record of evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics. Owen Jones said that the memo was "guff dressed up with pseudo-scientific jargon" and cited a former Google employee saying that it failed to show the desired qualities of an engineer.
Impact on Google
Prior to his interview with Damore, Steve Kovach interviewed a female Google employee for Business Insider who objected to the way the memo lumped all women together, saying that it came across as a personal attack. Business Insider also reported an increase in the number of women preparing to leave Google by interviewing for other jobs. Reporter Oliver Staley focused on the claim in the memo that "men are more competitive than women" for innate biological reasons. In an article for Quartz, he pointed to a 2009 study by a team of economists which found evidence against this.
Concerns about sexism
In addition to Sheryl Sandberg, who linked to scientific counterarguments, a number of other women in technology condemned the memorandum, including Megan Smith, a former Google vice president, Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube, wrote an editorial in which she described feeling devastated about the potential effect of the memo on young women. Laurie Leshin, president of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, said that she was heartened by the backlash against the memo, which gave her hope that things were changing. Kara Swisher of Recode criticized the memo as sexist; Cynthia B. Lee, a computer science lecturer at Stanford University stated that there is ample evidence for bias in tech and that correcting this was more important than whether biological differences might account for a proportion of the numerical imbalances in Google and in technology.
Cathy Young in USA Today said that while the memo had legitimate points, it probably overstates things, while Google's reaction to the memo was harmful since it fed into arguments that men are oppressed in modern workplaces. Libertarian author Megan McArdle, writing for Bloomberg View, said that Damore's claims about differing levels of interest between the sexes reflected her own experiences.
UC Hastings legal scholar Joan C. Williams expressed concerns about the prescriptive language used by some diversity training programs and recommended that diversity initiatives be phrased in problem-solving terms.
Employment law and free speech concerns
Yuki Noguchi, a reporter for NPR, said that Damore's firing has raised questions regarding the limits of free speech in the workplace. First Amendment free speech protections usually do not extend into the workplace, as the First Amendment restricts government action but not the actions of private employers, and employers have a duty to protect their employees against a hostile work environment.
Several employment law experts noted that while Damore could challenge his firing in court, his potential case would be weak and Google would arguably have several defensible reasons for firing him; had Google not made a substantive response to his memo, that could have been cited as evidence of a "hostile work environment" in lawsuits against Google. Additionally, the memo could indicate that Damore would be unable to fairly assess or supervise the work of female colleagues. Jim Edwards of Business Insider argued that Damore did not have a free speech case for being fired.
However, an expert in Californian labor law, Valerie Sharpe, a labor lawyer based in the San Francisco area, told Business Insider that Damore could win the case and his chance is "above decent". When discussing with Bloomberg the viability of James Damore's potential claims before the National Labor Relations Board, the former Chair of the NLRB under President Barack Obama, Wilma Liebman, stated, "I think it's an open question. It's not a slam dunk either way."
Damore hired civil rights lawyer Harmeet Dhillon, who plans to sue Google over his firing. On August 23, Dhillon said she was in talks with current and former Google employees "gathering facts about working conditions at Google, particularly for those whose views are inconsistent with Google’s political orthodoxy."
Margaret Wente in The Globe and Mail assessed that "the tone, although occasionally injudicious, was mild" and opined that Damore was fired because "in the world of liberal dogma, all of this is wrongthink". Erick Erickson, a conservative writer for RedState, criticized Google's decision to fire Damore, writing that it showed that "views outside left-wing groupthink are not shareable inside Google".
David Brooks of the New York Times, who wrote that the media's "coverage of the memo has been atrocious", criticized Google's handling of the controversy. He called for Sundar Pichai to resign as CEO, suggesting "either Pichai is unprepared to understand the research (unlikely), is not capable of handling complex data flows (a bad trait in a C.E.O.) or was simply too afraid to stand up to a mob", and called Danielle Brown's response "ideology obliterating reason". In an opinion piece for Bloomberg View, Clive Crook accused Sundar Pichai of adopting a strawman fallacy and wrote that Danielle Brown's decision to denounce the memo without linking to it was "a formula straight out of the Soviet thought-control handbook".
In The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf took issue with the commonly applied label "anti-diversity" and warned that "every prominent instance of journalism that proceeds with less than normal rigor when the subject touches on social justice feeds a growing national impulse to dismiss everything published about these subjects". Later, he published the viewpoint of English professor Alan Jacobs, opining that Sundar Pichai's reasons for firing Damore were ambiguous. Ezra Klein, contributing to Vox, suggested that the discussion following the Google memo validated a variety of fears held by people across the political spectrum; "If Google—and the tech world more generally—is sexist, or in the grips of a totalitarian cult of political correctness, or a secret hotbed of alt-right reactionaries, the consequences would be profound." CNN's Kirsten Powers stated that the memo, although flawed, "bears no relation to the hysterical, biased media coverage of it".
Several analyses focused more on reactions to the memo than on the memo itself. For example, Jesse Singal wrote, "A memo can't just be off-base or overly simplistic; its author has to be a reactionary monster, the embodiment of gender inequity in tech."
Peter Singer, a philosopher best known for utilitarianism, drew attention to the seriousness of Damore's citations but added, "There are also grounds for questioning some of this research". Regarding Google's firing of Damore, Singer stated "it isn't necessary to decide which side is right, but only whether Damore's view is one that a Google employee should be permitted to express. I think it is."
A Harvard-Harris Poll survey showed that 55 percent of those polled said Google was wrong to fire Damore, including 61 percent of Republicans, 56 percent of independents and 50 percent of Democrats.
- Biological determinism
- Criticism of Google
- Gender disparity in computing
- Resistance to diversity efforts in organizations
- Sex differences in psychology
- Sexism in the technology industry
- Women in computing
- Women in STEM fields
- The NeuroGenderings Network
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