How Google should be responding to the diversity backlash

Chloe Hava


written on August 7, 2017

The Google anti-diversity memo raises important questions about how diversity in the workplace should be approached.

Earlier this year, Google announced that it was implementing a diversity program to counteract gender and racial biases within the organisation, an issue faced by Silicon Valley at large. The company initiated proceedings in 2016 by releasing embarrassing data about its employee make-up – such as the fact 71 per cent of Google employees were male and 57 per cent of Google US employees were white.

Google allocated resources to four areas to help improve the situation – hiring, inclusion, education and communities. And recently a female Vice President of Diversity, Integrity and Governance, Danielle Brown, was appointed to oversee these initiatives.

The program hasn’t had much early success, with men still occupying 69 per cent of the Google workforce and 75 per cent of the top roles.

And now one employee’s pushback against the program has made headlines. An opinionated Software engineer distributed a memo on the company’s internal discussion board titled, “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber.” In it, the author laments the direction Google is headed, and makes many claims about the  inherent biological differences between men and women. He suggests they may have more to do with preventing women’s ascension in tech, rather than gender based discrimination. He mentions the idea that women possess a greater level of “neuroticism,” which “may contribute to the higher levels of anxiety women report on Googlegeist and to the lower number of women in high stress jobs.”

(UPDATE: The engineer who wrote the initial memo has since been fired for “perpetuating gender stereotypes”)

The backlash to his backlash was swift, with several female Google employees tweeting their disgust and some calling for the engineer to be sacked.

How should HR respond?

AHRI Chairman Peter Wilson states that although the employee expressed some regrettable ideas by resorting to stereotypes that weakened his argument, his points are commonly raised in the backlash against diversity programs. One of the functions of diversity in the workplace is to benefit and strengthen an organisation in areas such as creativity, Wilson says, and strict quotas can risk pushing the pendulum the other way, replacing one stereotype with another.

An assessment conducted by The Harvard Business Review supports this argument. “In analysing three decades’ worth of data from more than 800 U.S. firms and interviewing hundreds of line managers and executives at length, we’ve seen that companies get better results when they ease up on the control tactics,” HBR authors Frank Dobrin and Alexandra Kalev stated.

Wilson stressed that employees should be able to express diverse viewpoints and opinions and should not be silenced. Without this ability, ideas are pushed underground, where they strengthen without the direction and intervention of HR.

The release of this document affords Google the opportunity to reassess and analyse their diversity approach, and what diversity actually means. Wilson said HR needs to step in and manage the situation by holding focus groups and town hall meetings where people are free to express their opinion without feeling marginalised. As the memo clearly pointed out, bias isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

But what if an ‘opinion’ publicly offends a sizeable portion of a global organisation, be they male or female?

While it’s important to be able to express differing opinions to the mainstream, these ideas need to be expressed clearly and professionally – ie. not on a social platform, like the author of the manifesto chose to do, Wilson says.

Ari Balogh, Google VP in Engineering released a statement that followed a similar line of thought, asserting that while “questioning our assumptions and sharing different perspectives” is important, “One of the aspects of the post that troubled me deeply was the bias inherent in suggesting that most women, or men, feel or act a certain way. That is stereotyping, and it is harmful.”

Former high-ranking Google engineer Yonatan Zunger said he would have fired the author of the manifesto on the spot, citing, “You have just created a textbook hostile workplace environment.” In her own memo addressing the issue, new diversity VP Brown said, “Strong stands elicit strong reactions. Changing a culture is hard, and it’s often uncomfortable. But I firmly believe Google is doing the right thing, and that’s why I took this job.”

What are your thoughts on handling backlash to diversity programs?

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8 thoughts on “How Google should be responding to the diversity backlash

  1. Any strong comment is an indicator of frustration with what is. I would invite conversation and listen. I would trust the author and all those who reacted to his piece to come together to talk. The only rule would be to listen, check for understanding and share perspective. Perhaps a solution may emerge that is powerful and shared amongst the stakeholders who care enough to voice their perspective, however inelegantly they may have done so in the first place.

  2. Unconscious bias has become a touchstone for diversity and inclusion programs. Unconscious bias is also closely aligned with instinct and gut feel. In my work on unconscious bias I have heard people argue that if they are in a successful organisation, especially where creativity and innovation are a factor in that success, perhaps it’s because their instincts (biases) are correct. What they are reluctant to look at is how the effect of those biases (eg. under-represented categories of employees) might be holding the organisation back.
    The software engineer has taken the first step to address this. By making his unconscious biases explicit, google is can now discuss the merits of a diversity program. It can now be explained to him how employment decisions will be flawed when they exclude women from roles or jobs based on such a bias (ie. his beliefs about where women are placed on a scale of ‘neuroticism’). The thing is, we all hold biases and most of them are unconscious. The challenge for organisations to create the right forums to put those biases on the table and have those discussions. HR can play a big part in that, as it is both a question of workplace culture and fulfilling the spirit of our discrimination laws. Also, one would have thought google would be well placed to design those forums.

  3. Gauri – agree. In the first instance, to pretend there are no gender differences is not progress. In the second, an inelegant communication can cause issues. It nonetheless is pointing to a problem which needs to be objectively heard for it’s intention before a politically correct roasting occurs.

  4. Diversity is not about quotas or stereotypes. In essence it a change in mindset from the top down. Without this, diversity program threaten to become mere tokenism.
    Many female members at Amazon have recently argued that they do not wish to be part of a target group as they see this as downgrading and insulting.

  5. Would it be worth considering what the proportion is of women and other minorities who take degrees or other significant qualifications in Information Technology and related disciplines? If the percentages are similar to what Google employs then there should be no cause for complaint. However, having spent 16 years working for a top US IT company I have to say that a lot of men are willing to work long hours for security and also often because IT is their hobby. In my experience there are a lot less women with the same passion or interest. I also have to say that although I don’t necessarily agree with the original manifesto I am concerned though that someone expressing a view, not in agreement with whatever might benefit educated middle and upper class women, should be so castigated and especially sacked.

  6. As always, there are many layers to this sort of issue. David, to your point about the IT intake, there is a lot of evidence that the schools and universities are even more biased and are not leading change, rather they are embedding stereotypes and poor behaviour. Diversity programs need to be based on recognition that biases will come through and that women (or other groups) are also prone to accepting the dominant paradigm, and that they can only be addressed by understanding both the fear behind change and the lack of knowledge of the real issue on the part of the dominant group. Programs need to drive a cultural shift, supported by actions, policies and values, and systems and processes …. it doesn’t happen overnight.

  7. Changing culture is hard. Yes, opinions being put forth by an employee is a welcome opportunity to discuss and address those biases, misconception and fears. There is also a point where all the round table talks and workshops need to result in progress. We expect our company leaders to take strong action that is not a knee-jerk response and in Google’s case, I believe they did exactly that. It reminds me of a scene from the 2013 movie “Jobs”, staring Ashton Kutcher. In it, Jobs fires an employee stating ‘he’s the best programmer that doesn’t care about our vision’. Having members of the team with values that are congruent to that of the company is fundamental to building a strong positive culture.

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