James Damore and Diversity in the Tech Industry
It has now been nearly six weeks since the James Damore memo blew the lid off the conversation surrounding diversity in the tech industry. Damore was fired shortly after publishing the 10-page diatribe where he quoted Wikipedia, debunked studies, and individual anecdotes to argue against gender diversity at Google. His memo drew outrage for suggesting, among other things, that women possess “higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance” and that for women, leadership positions “may not be worth it if [they] want a balanced and fulfilling life”. Men, he argued, want leadership roles and should have them, and so the industry should focus on endorsing part-time, low-stress work for women to keep them in the industry as well.
Damore was fired from his position at Google for the release of this memo, and his document drew wide condemnation from Google’s leadership, and across the tech field. While Damore is one man in albeit, one very high profile company, the controversy at Google is important in the context of not only the dialogue about diversity and inclusion in tech, an industry that has historically been dominated by young, white men, but the national discourse about diversity and inclusion, as it relates to both gender and race.
Six weeks on, James Damore plays an active role in ensuring the debate continues, by continuing to speak out in the media against Google’s “echo chamber”, and hiring a top RNC lawyer to manage his forthcoming lawsuit. The debate rages on as to what space there is for speech that advocates for the suppression of minorities, as just last week, the alt-right friendly site Gab, known for housing white supremacists, sued Google, citing Google’s culture of political correctness and censorship practices, in addition to its anti-competitiveness.
Like many categorized as part of the Conservative alt-right, Damore has been championed by the right as an embattled free speech warrior, unjustly persecuted by the liberal tech giant, a martyr in the right’s ongoing war against PC-culture. Meanwhile, Trump waffled in condemning the white supremacists of Charlottesville, while Sessions and the DOJ began to mount a case against affirmative action in universities. The arguments Conservatives make regarding race and affirmative action in schools mirror those that Damore makes in arguing that there is not enough space for white men in tech, due to reverse discrimination in the name of diversity and inclusion.
In reality, the statistics prove, unsurprisingly, that there is plenty of space for white men. Google, which has pursued an aggressive tack in promoting diversity and inclusion, still remains dominated by white men, despite investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the last several years to promote diversity and inclusion. The company’s 2017 diversity and inclusion data shows that the workforce is 69% male and 56% white. Google is only 2% Black and 4% Hispanic. Their most recent 2016 EEO filing reports a senior management team of 31 individuals includes 20 white men, 6 Asian men, 1 black man, and 4 white women. 65% of the Google leadership team looks like Damore – they are white men. While Google is being sued by Gab, in part, because of its PC-culture on one end of the spectrum, on the other, it is simultaneously being slapped with a class action lawsuit for its gender pay gap.
Here, an interesting dichotomy emerges. Silicon Valley has traditionally been viewed as highly liberal. Whether it is Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz stumping for Hillary, or 100% of Twitter’s employees donating to liberal candidates, tech stereotypically skews to the left. The tech industry often does invest, promote, and publically align itself with a liberal-leaning ethos with a strong focus on inclusivity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging. Its leadership supports liberal candidates and activist groups such as BLM, yet the reality on the ground begs the question of whether this ethos lies only skin deep.
Despite verbal commitments to diversity and inclusion, tech remains a difficult field for women and racial minorities, with proportionately few reaching leadership positions in the industry. The left-leaning bias does not seem to extend to a commitment to social justice issues, nor, often, to exemplifying the diversity it espouses.
There is also the question of how left the tech industry really is, despite tech leaders’ public facing liberalism. For instance, when Paypal founder Peter Thiel made a major donation to the Trump campaign, there were cries across social media to boycott Paypal. However, Thiel did not face any meaningful ostracism from the industry. After his firing, James Damore took to Reddit. In an AMA subreddit, Damore and other alleged Google employees wrote that the majority of their peer group at Google supported the claims of the memo.
The diversity problem in tech is acute, and despite recent efforts by some of the major companies to increase transparency and accountability around diversity, the industry is still lagging behind. The Damore memo, although specific to Google, and the tech industry, in many ways, serves as a microcosm for the dialogue around these issues nationally.
The political climate has elevated alt-right narratives about diversity and inclusion. It has placed organizations like Google in a position where their company ethos is tested, and their commitment to and ability to create a workplace that is both open and diverse is challenged. Even recent efforts to have an open forum discussion about the memo itself at Google were thwarted when alt-right activist Milo Yiannopoulos doxed eight employees, causing Google CEO Sundar Pichai to cancel the meeting due to safety concerns.
As the controversy with James Damore and Google continues to play out in the media, Silicon Valley’s tech giants will no doubt be carefully examining how they define their ethical boundaries and their role in this national debate.