I’m not one for hot takes. This is much more of a lukewarm take. Everyone seemingly has an opinion on the leaked memo a Google employee wrote and circulated within the company last week. The employee has since been fired, Google’s CEO has penned a memo to employees on it, and the former employee has filed a free speech lawsuit. Everyone seems to feel the need to argue about whether or not it is protected speech or not. Most agree it was way over the line, though apparently, it did gain traction within a minority contingent within the company. I’m not going to inject my thoughts on any of these.
For those unfamiliar, a Google employee published a 10-page manifesto on the company’s diversity efforts and why they were misguided and damaging. This was not presented as opinion. In it, he claimed that his female coworkers were genetically disposed to be worse software developers, because of ingrained traits that made them more empathetic and better communicators. Let’s ignore the contradictory nature of this for now. Many have already opined on why these traits are actually key to successful senior developers. In my experience, developers who want to grow into a senior role of influence and success need to develop strong people skills like empathy as their responsibilities grow. Almost never can developers be successful in a technology company with just being awesome at writing code if they lack people skills.
Instead of rehashing the arguments around this, I’ll summarize my opinions by deferring to someone both more eloquent and more familiar with the situation than me, Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai. He states that “much of what was in that memo is fair to debate, regardless of whether a vast majority of Googlers disagree with it.” Yes, encouraging debate and conversation is entirely healthy in any organization and a great way to build consensus. However, the author clearly did not intend to actually engage in debate, no matter what they claimed about “open discussion”. Pichai continues, “to suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.” No, it isn’t ok and cannot be tolerated. This engineer claimed that roughly ⅓ of his co-workers are not equipped to do their job and that they need to prove otherwise.
I spent a good amount of time this week like I’m sure many others in the tech industry did, thinking about what I would do in this situation. I cannot possibly imagine someone on my team harboring similar thoughts, much less writing extensively about them and circulating them. I’m sure this engineer’s manager couldn’t imagine it until it happened either. What would I do? I like to think that I am at least an advocate for diversity and encouraging different background and opinions within my team and organization. How could I not respond strongly to this type of thing, especially knowing that the women on my team were being discounted, and the majority of the team would at least disagree, if not be unwilling to work with such an individual?
But, this is a tricky thing. It is a fine line between free speech and hate speech. Governments and huge companies have struggled to define the line. To me, when an issue like this dramatically hurts team morale, cohesion, productivity, and comes at the cost of fellow team members, it cannot be tolerated. If an individual asserted that a fellow team member was unequipped for the job or attacked their background or anything personal about them, it couldn’t be tolerated. What specifically that means will vary from organization to organization. I understand Google’s decision to terminate the employee as well as their response.
Even worse is that this view isn’t uncommon and continues to propagate despite large efforts to curtail it and change perceptions. Huge educational institutions are working to counteract the shrinking pool of women entering STEM fields, especially engineering. Non-profits have come into existence solely to fight this. Several team members and I work closely with Girls Who Code each year and partner with the Grace Hopper Conference to contribute with this. Still, these core issues persist and are exactly the ones that keep women away from engineering, and who can blame them? If I were constantly told I had genetics that made me worse at math or coding, I would probably learn to get away from them as well. If the majority of people in a field continuously excluded me on purpose or actively discouraged me, as continuously surfaces in Silicon Valley, I’d give up too.
This needs to change now. Only a strong message is going to get through now. The world needs to improve and those of us with modern, or at least non-paleolithic views, need to actualize that change. As fathers, husbands, partners, team members, and mentors, we need to change this.
Opinions are my own and do not necessarily represent those of my employer.