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Google memo: How engineer's firing leaves awkward debate over free speech

Google memo: How engineer's firing leaves debate over free speech hanging

Theresa Simpkin | The Conversation 

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Internet giant has found itself in the middle of a spiky and growing debate over free speech after it fired an employee who sought to challenge how the company manages gender disparities and the discussion around diversity.

Many have rushed to denounce James Damore, the author of a so-called “anti-diversity manifesto” published on an internal platform, but the sentiments he expressed before he was fired are confronting as well as infuriating.

Social media has delivered its standard broad-brush moral arbitration on the matter, but the breadth of the discussion mirrors the complexity and nuances of the issue of “managing” diversity and inclusion in organisations.

The now ex-employee was branded a misogynist by some, a harbinger of truth by others. Certainly, once news of his departure from became public, the company’s response was widely pilloried.

Damore has said he is “likely” to pursue legal action. Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in a note to employees that parts of Damore’s memo “violated our Code of Conduct and cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace”.

Diverse ideas

So, what did the memo really say? Looking at just a few points, there is a confounding mix of common sense, implicit bias and outrageous misrepresentation. The article is a tangle of fact, fiction and overt grandiloquence, but it does make some compelling points about inclusion. It is not just about gender, it is not just about race, and it is certainly not just about the prevailing politically acceptable perspective.

First of all, any attempt to make D&I (diversity and integration) a fundamental part of an organisation has to accept the concept of equity. Damore suggests:

… when a man complains about a gender issue … affecting men, he’s labelled as a misogynist and whiner … Men’s problems are more often seen as personal failings rather than victimhood.

Every cloud… ImageFlow/Shutterstock

This is an important point. When we talk about gender equality, we often hear the argument applied to equity of opportunity for women. However, equity is not a zero-sum proposition; support for individuals should be gender neutral. Traditional Western society often expects men to “man up” when things go awry. Until this stereotype goes by the wayside, equity will not be realised.

Criticism

Another idea raised is a greater “focus on psychological safety” and “shared values to gain the benefits of diversity”. Again, this is essential to allow everyone to access equal opportunity inside organisations, regardless of gender, class, race, or whatever else sets them apart.

But here is the rub. Many do not properly examine why they need to implement diversity and inclusion programs in the first place. Despite this, D&I programmes are funded, sometimes without review and may be, as Damore suggested, “immune to criticism from those outside its ideological echo chamber”.

D&I is often used as a risk mitigation tool – “do this and no one can blame us”. Broadly speaking, it is not delivering on promises to the business or its people. Any critique of training or procedures linked to diversity can be conflated with a criticism of the principles of D&I, and therefore silenced. Criticism can then evolve to become a simmering resentment among those who feel disenfranchised.

Damore argues that restricting access to diversity programs and classes based on gender or race can be seen as “unfair and divisive”, adding to that resentment. It suggests that administrative processes, rather than the activities themselves, are undermining the intent and rationale behind D&I.

Engineering change

So, there is much to reflect on in Damore’s piece. However, there is a bewildering flipside, too, and it is a useful reminder of why our businesses and communities need to keep a constant focus on respecting difference.

The writer denounces the “arbitrary social engineering of tech just to make it appealing to equal portions of both men and women”. This opening gambit, sadly, colours some of the other more astute musings.

Creating equity is not social engineering. Indeed, the principle of equity aims to redress decades, if not centuries, of socially embedded, overt and covert discrimination. Inclusion as a principle aims to provide access to opportunity and the rewards thereof – not just to the few deemed socially appropriate, but to all with the abilities required.

However, the recipients of privilege often determine what merit looks like and so it is replicated on a basis that’s far from meritorious. Under-representation of women and minorities on boards is one clear example.

Inherent bias in systems and processes can mean that programmes to expand the labour pool – a sound business strategy – might be labelled as “lowering the bar”. Applying different, but not “lesser”, criteria is often seen as making concessions. D&I too often fails to sell the underpinning argument which shows why it is needed.

Skill sets

One of the most infuriating among a raft of eye-rollingly redundant comments is Damore’s suggestion that the science of biological differences between the sexes is denied in favour of the diversity agenda. In truth, advances in neuroscience and critiques of outdated, poorly executed research, counter the science on which this writer is relying.

Brain functions. Bob May/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Angela Saini, in her recent book, Inferior, elegantly calls out a raft of gender theory that, via bias confirmation, supports rickety but generally accepted notions about the inherent skills, abilities and roles available to different genders.

While still hotly debated, it is now suggested that gender differences are as strongly influenced, if not mostly, by nurture (or as Damore might suggest, social engineering) as by nature. The idea that women are less suited to a job in parts of the tech sector because of biology or a natural predisposition for, say, teaching or secretarial work, is fundamentally flawed.

The ConversationEmbedded bias, warped assumptions and traditional notions of merit need to be critiqued. But practices, process and administrative structures must be smarter and more deep-rooted to shift socially constructed discrimination outside of the echo chamber. Firing those who suggest that the Emperor has no pants on is not a smart move.


Theresa Simpkin, Senior Lecturer, Leadership and Corporate Education, Anglia Ruskin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation
 

First Published: Sat, August 12 2017. 10:39 IST
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