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?