Software engineer James Damore was fired from his job at Google last week after a "manifesto" he wrote about diversity efforts and women in tech was leaked online. But his complaints have taken on a life of their own, fueling an ongoing public discussion about male/female differences, workplace equity, and shoddy science.
In a commentary published Friday in The Wall Street Journal, Damore said his memo was written to spark a good-faith look at differences between men and women. He criticized his former employer as a "particularly intense echo chamber" that operates "almost like a cult."
However, many others have pushed back with articles and op-ed pieces noting that much of the "scientific" data Damore cited in his memo is either outdated or inaccurate, and that Google's firing was justified because Damore's beliefs promoted "harmful gender stereotypes" and a hostile work environment for women.
Lagging Workplace Equity
This is hardly the first time questions have been raised about women in the tech industry. It's not even the first high-profile controversy this year over the issue. For example, a blog post written in February by former Uber engineer Susan Fowler about sexism at that company led to weeks and months of fallout, including the June resignation of founder/CEO Travis Kalanick.
Google and other companies have also been on the hot seat in recent years for diversity reports that show their workforces remain dominantly male and white compared to the general population of the United States. In fact, two years ago, Google announced a $150 million initiative aimed at increasing industry hiring of women and people of color, especially in the field of software engineering.
The company's global workforce is 31 percent female and 69 percent male, despite the world population being roughly 50/50, according to Google's most recent diversity report, published early this year.
In the U.S., Google's workforce is 56 percent white, 35 percent Asian, 4 percent Hispanic and 2 percent black; the general population, by contrast, is about 14 percent black and nearly 17 percent Hispanic or Latino. And according to Google's 2016 EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) report, the company's U.S. workforce is 29 percent women and 71 percent men.
Online Harassment Leads to Canceled Meeting
"To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK," Google CEO Sundar Pichai said last week in an internal memo explaining the decision to fire Damore. "It is contrary to our basic values and our Code of Conduct, which expects 'each Googler to do their utmost to create a workplace culture that is free of harassment, intimidation, bias and unlawful discrimination.' "
Google had been scheduled to have an "all-hands" meeting of employees in response to the furor over Damore's memo, but canceled it after employees reported online harassment and concerns about their safety. Several alt-right Web sites reportedly published the names of Google employees and other private information online, and the "provocateur" Milo Yiannopoulos used his Facebook page to publicize information about Google employees who were critical of Damore's memo.
Pichai said the company planned to "step back and create a better set of conditions for us to have the discussion."
In the meantime, Damore's citing of "scientific evidence" for male/female differences has also been heavily criticized. In a commentary published in The Guardian last week, Angela Saini, author of "Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong," noted that one of the computer world's first pioneers was a woman: Ada Lovelace.
"Women are making enormous strides in science and engineering -- yet, with some half-cocked hypotheses in their back pockets, male software engineers feel they have the right to tell them they are somehow biologically unsuited to this kind of work," Saini said.
Susan Wojcicki, CEO of the Google property YouTube, also criticized Damore's use of questionable science about women in a commentary in Fortune.
"[Wh]at if we replaced the word 'women' in the memo with another group?" Wojcicki asked. "What if the memo said that biological differences amongst Black, Hispanic, or LGBTQ employees explained their underrepresentation in tech and leadership roles? Would some people still be discussing the merit of the memo's arguments or would there be a universal call for swift action against its author? I don't ask this to compare one group to another, but rather to point out that the language of discrimination can take many different forms and none are acceptable or productive."