Let’s all assume Google CEO Sundar Pichai has a really hard day ahead of him.
That’s because at 4 pm PT, the tech giant will hold an all-hands meeting to discuss the firing of James Damore and the controversial internal memo he wrote about women and their biological weaknesses related to tech that got him canned from the company.
The gathering will take place at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., today and will stream live to its global offices, reaching the 60,000 employees that the Alphabet unit employs. Since many will not be at work when the meeting takes place, it will also be available for replay.
And what a topic to discuss: Damore’s essay has resulted in massive and sometimes ugly debates inside and outside Google about diversity, gender issues and free speech, about which many disagree.
One thing is clear: It will be one of the biggest public challenges the cerebral, soft-spoken and — in my experience — unfailingly thoughtful executive will face in his 13 years at Google (and almost two as its CEO), as he seeks to calm the muddy and sometimes ugly waters that Damore has churned up via his post titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber.”
Pichai made the final decision about Damore’s fate, after what several sources with knowledge of the meeting characterized as a tough debate by top management, with initial disagreement over how to handle the situation. It took place Monday in person and via phone after a weekend of trying to corral top staff, many of whom were on vacation, including Pichai.
According to those familiar with the discussion, his dozen direct reports whom he consulted were initially at odds about what to do about Google’s continual and complex balancing act between free speech and fostering a safe workplace.
“Just like all of Google is struggling with this, we were not unanimous at first about whether what [Damore] wrote merited firing, although we all came around to it,” said one top exec. “But Sundar had to make a call about what kind of Google he wanted to stress and he did.”
Others familiar with the meeting said it centered on how much latitude employees should have to express their opinions — one of the central tenets of Google since its founding — versus creating a culture that is trying to become attractive and safe to a broader range of people.
“I think the problem and also benefit of Google has been that we’ve created and encouraged an environment where everyone thinks they can say what they want, because that is what has always been the way it has been,” said another top exec. “But, at some point, if we really want to change, we have to think harder about what impact that has, especially when it makes women or others feel unsafe in the environment we have created.”
It’s a split reflected at the very top of Google’s owner, Alphabet, where its top lawyer, David Drummond, has been one of the most vocal advocates of free speech over the years. As an Alphabet exec, he was not part of Monday’s decision-making meeting.
Meanwhile, another longtime Google leader, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, who was at the meeting, penned her own essay that appeared in Fortune this week, with an opposite take.
“While people may have a right to express their beliefs in public, that does not mean companies cannot take action when women are subjected to comments that perpetuate negative stereotypes about them based on their gender,” she wrote. “Every day, companies take action against employees who make unlawful statements about co-workers, or create hostile work environments.”
It’s all against a backdrop of a company that — contrary to Damore’s contention that he had been “shamed” into silence — has allowed its employees an unusual amount of latitude to air their opinions on a myriad of online platforms and in offline gatherings on everything from the quality of the food at its many free cafeterias to the political stances of the company.
(Sorry, young James: But IMHO, over nearly two decades of covering the company, Google workers never seem to shut up about anything. In fact, I’ve seen low-level engineers insult its founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, at public events with the pair insulting right back. My takeaway: Good lord, they all talk too much for techies.)
And talk I am certain they will do today, with Pichai facing a buzzsaw of differing opinion about that on both sides of an ever-complex debate about gender and diversity. (Also possible on the docket: The state of a Labor Department dispute over the pay gap between women and men at the company.)
But Damore’s missive is likely to suck up all the oxygen, due to the conflagration it created and the debate it engendered.
For example: Some inside Google think it took too long for bosses there to react to what they consider a fatuous screed; others disagree with their decision to eject Damore from the company altogether for speaking his mind.
And some want the company to do even more to fix persistent statistics that show around 80 percent of its technical staff is male, which might have led to such musings; others think Google’s diversity programs to help improve the numbers are deeply flawed and even discriminatory toward men.
For those not paying attention, Damore posted a 10-page, 3,000-word thesis in which he began simply enough:
“I value diversity and inclusion, am not denying that sexism exists, and don’t endorse using stereotypes. When addressing the gap in representation in the population, we need to look at population level differences in distributions. If we can't have an honest discussion about this, then we can never truly solve the problem.”
But then, in what is pretty much the main premise, Damore went on in detail: “I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership.”
What followed was a list of those differences, including a claim that women were more social and artistic and could not take the stress of high-pressure jobs. Hence, “neuroticism,” or higher anxiety and lower stress tolerance, which he claimed was backed up by studies.
(Pro tip to Damore: Calling women neurotic, when it appears you might be way down that psychological alley, is a rookie error in blogging and really sunk you most of all.)
Perhaps most disingenuously, Damore also claimed that he had no voice, even after penning a long memo that he was able to send companywide and also was read by millions more.
In fact, Damore posted the essay earlier in one of Google’s smaller discussion platforms — not one like its massive “eng-misc” one — before it bubbled up this past weekend and was finally noticed by top execs.
Alerted to it, sources said Pichai then started off gathering opinions from his direct reports — such as Wojcicki, HR head Eileen Naughton, top lawyer Kent Walker, cloud leader Diane Greene, communications head Jessica Powell and business head Philipp Schindler. Not all were physically present at Google’s Silicon Valley HQ, where the group debated the issue, and were at first split.
“It was a cordial discussion, considering the topic, and you could see how you could argue both sides on the face of it,” said one source. “But I think Damore’s focus on biology really made it clear that he had crossed the line.”
What turned the tide, said sources, was when it was noted that if Damore’s dubious contentions about women’s skills were replaced by those about race or religion, there would be no debate.
In fact, Wojcicki said as much in her essay:
“For instance, what if we replaced the word ‘women’ in the memo with another group? What if the memo said that biological differences amongst Black, Hispanic, or LGBTQ employees explained their underrepresentation in tech and leadership roles? Would some people still be discussing the merit of the memo’s arguments or would there be a universal call for swift action against its author? I don’t ask this to compare one group to another, but rather to point out that the language of discrimination can take many different forms and none are acceptable or productive.”
Damore has insisted he was “smeared” by top execs after the post went viral. “There was a concerted effort among upper management to have a very clear signal that what I did was harmful and wrong and didn't stand for Google,” Damore said in an interview with Bloomberg. “It would be career suicide for any executives or directors to support me.”
Numerous Google execs and employees I spoke to scoff at that notion, especially after Damore gave his first interviews to alt-right sites, which never met a conspiracy they did not rage over and which has lessened support of him inside Google substantially.
Said one flatly: “He cannot spew his dubious biology arguments — you can find any study to justify any crazy notion — and not pay a price for it.”
Pichai wrote to employees on Monday and said as much, but much more politely: “To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.”
In other words, the CEO of Google has spoken. And now, Googlers will get their chance.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.