Googler’s Viral Memo Reveals Backlash to Diversity in Tech

Googler’s Viral Memo Reveals Backlash to Diversity in Tech

A senior software engineer at Google set off a firestorm last week with a ten-page letter circulated on an internal mailing list that quickly went viral within the company. In a memo titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” which Gizmodo has published in full, the employee argues that men predominate in software engineering because of biological differences between men and women; that Google’s diversity and inclusion efforts reflect an “extreme,” “authoritarian,” and “leftist” ideology; and that employees who express conservative political beliefs or different viewpoints on the merits of diversity are shamed into silence. Motherboard’s Louise Matsakis, who broke the story on Saturday, reported that the letter was widely condemned within the Google community, but has also raised questions over how many men at Google—particularly in leadership positions—share the author’s views on gender:

The 10-page Google Doc document was met with derision from a large majority of employees who saw and denounced its contents, according to the employee. But Jaana Dogan, a software engineer at Google, tweeted that some people at the company at least partially agreed with the author; one of our sources said the same. … “The broader context of this is that this person is perhaps bolder than most of the people at Google who share his viewpoint—of thinking women are less qualified than men—to the point he was willing to publicly argue for it. But there are sadly more people like him,” the employee who described the document’s contents to me said. …

Motherboard has independently confirmed with multiple Google employees that the document is being widely shared among many of the company’s software engineering teams: “If I had to guess, almost every single woman in engineering has seen it,” the current employee told Motherboard; a separate current employee told me it was being actively read by many employees.

The explosive emergence of this letter presents the first major challenge for Google’s new Vice President of Diversity, Integrity & Governance, Danielle Brown, who was only just hired at the end of June. In a statement sent to all Google employees, Brown reasserted the company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, gently criticized the letter for advancing “incorrect assumptions about gender,” and disputed the assertion that Google is intolerant of minority political viewpoints:

Diversity and inclusion are a fundamental part of our values and the culture we continue to cultivate. We are unequivocal in our belief that diversity and inclusion are critical to our success as a company, and we’ll continue to stand for that and be committed to it for the long haul. As [Google VP] Ari Balogh said in his internal G+ post, “Building an open, inclusive environment is core to who we are, and the right thing to do. ‘Nuff said. “ …

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.

Yonatan Zunger, a 14-year veteran of Google who recently left to work for fellow ex-Googler Laszlo Bock’s workplace technology startup Humu, published a sharp counterpoint to the viral letter at Medium, in which he argues that on top of the author’s spurious assertions about the relationship between gender and technical ability, he appears to misunderstand the skill set that goes into making a great engineer. “I was rather surprised,” Zunger writes, “that anyone has managed to make it this far without understanding some very basic points about what the job is“:

Essentially, engineering is all about cooperation, collaboration, and empathy for both your colleagues and your customers. If someone told you that engineering was a field where you could get away with not dealing with people or feelings, then I’m very sorry to tell you that you have been lied to. Solitary work is something that only happens at the most junior levels, and even then it’s only possible because someone senior to you — most likely your manager — has been putting in long hours to build up the social structures in your group that let you focus on code.

All of these traits which the manifesto described as “female” are the core traits which make someone successful at engineering.

But more importantly than the author getting his facts backwards, Zunger continues, is that he is overtly antagonistic to every woman working at his company and in his industry:

I need to be very clear here: not only was nearly everything you said in that document wrong, the fact that you did that has caused significant harm to people across this company, and to the company’s entire ability to function. And being aware of that kind of consequence is also part of your job, as in fact it would be at pretty much any other job. I am no longer even at the company and I’ve had to spend half of the past day talking to people and cleaning up the mess you’ve made. I can’t even imagine how much time and emotional energy has been sunk into this, not to mention reputational harm more broadly.

And as for its impact on you: Do you understand that at this point, I could not in good conscience assign anyone to work with you? I certainly couldn’t assign any women to deal with this, a good number of the people you might have to work with may simply punch you in the face, and even if there were a group of like-minded individuals I could put you with, nobody would be able to collaborate with them. You have just created a textbook hostile workplace environment.

In addition, the memo’s author seems to have created an opportunity for other Googlers who share his attitude toward diversity to come out of the woodwork, as Motherboard captures in a roundup of reactions to the letter within Google:

“This is actually terrifying: if someone is not ideologically aligned with the majority then he’s labeled as a ‘poor cultural fit’ and would not be hired/promoted,” one person claiming to be a Google employee wrote in [a private Blind thread created to discuss the manifesto], seemingly referring to outrage within the company about the manifesto. “Eric [possibly referring to Eric Schmidt, executive chairman at Google] somewhere said that Google has the lowest percentage of conservatives and I think this post underlines the institutionalized discrimination that led to this extreme lack of intellectual diversity.” …

“The fella who posted that is extremely brave. We need more people standing up against the insanity. Otherwise ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ which is essentially a pipeline from Women’s and African Studies into Google, will ruin the company,” another comment in the thread said.

While these sentiments may only reflect the views of a minority of Googlers, it’s unlikely they are unique to Google or the tech sector. Rather, Gwynn Guilford suggests at Quartz, the letter and the ensuing controversy are representative of an American political environment in which “discussion about diversity and free speech is increasingly defined by people on the ideological extremes”:

As the election of Donald Trump has made clear, many Americans feel enslaved by political correctness. The extreme left has claimed a moral monopoly and attempted to shame dissenting views out of existence. That approach makes dissenters unlikely to consider the value of diversity and opportunity if they don’t feel “psychologically safe,” as the Google author says repeatedly, in mainstream conversations. Shaming forces these perspectives onto sub-channels of the Blind app and websites like Breitbart, where these ideas tend to go unchallenged. …

Silicon Valley won’t solve its diversity problems until it both acknowledges its failures and engages in a broader dialogue about why those failures matter.

And last week’s memo should serve as yet another wake-up call for the tech world, argues Fortune columnist Ellen McGirt:

That an engineer at a blue chip firm felt it necessary to explain in excruciating detail how a woman’s biological tendencies (agreeability, neuroticism, empathy, etc.) make them less equipped than men for certain jobs felt to many like a reminder of why tech continues to be in large part a walled bro-garden. There are fewer women (or people of color) in tech because they know how awful it can be to work there. No bullet-pointed memorandum cheering for “viewpoint diversity” can put lipstick on that particular pig.