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Google has fired the engineer whose anti-diversity memo reflects a divided tech culture

James Damore’s sexist screed indicted all of Silicon Valley.

(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Google has fired the employee who authored a controversial 10-page memo arguing for less emphasis on gender diversity in the workplace, reports Bloomberg. The document was first posted to an internal company forum on Friday, August 4, and immediately went viral among Google employees; it was then leaked to the media over the weekend, setting off a firestorm of outrage and debate while highlighting the company’s ongoing struggles to meaningfully diversify its workforce.

Titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” the memo argues that the reason women are underrepresented in the tech industry has to do with "biological causes" between men and women. Its author, James Damore, was a senior software engineer at Google (a mid-level position at the company); Damore, who holds a doctorate in systems biology from Harvard and had worked at Google since 2013, has confirmed to multiple outlets that he was terminated for “perpetuating gender stereotypes.”

Damore’s memo specifically criticizes the company for its ongoing diversity and inclusion initiatives, which include encouraging its employees to take classes in unconscious bias. He uses primarily stereotyped misconceptions about men and women to argue that “gender gaps [do not always] imply sexism,” and declares that “discriminating just to increase the representation of women in tech” is “misguided and biased” as well as “unfair, divisive, and bad for business.”

Notably, the memo complicates an already unflattering moment for Google: The company has pledged to improve its recently updated internal diversity metrics — which paint an unsympathetic picture of yet another tech company whose employees are predominantly white and male — while also facing wage discrimination scrutiny from the US Department of Labor for systematically underpaying its female employees.

Reactions from Google employees and the public at large have been wide-ranging. Many people are utterly appalled, and have expressed outrage not only over the memo’s dangerous anti-diversity sentiments and faulty logic, but the fact that Damore felt confident posting such a screed to an internal forum for all of his colleagues to see. He even used his own name, which was quickly leaked to the press.

But Damore’s memo has also generated some support — from both inside and outside the company — and thus has kicked off a larger discussion about how far “free speech” should go in workplace environments. It’s also highlighted Google’s lack of gender parity and the tech industry’s ongoing problems with fostering safe spaces for women.

The memo’s stereotype-based arguments and cries for less empathy sparked immediate controversy

In Damore’s memo, he states that women are more “neurotic” and have a lower “stress tolerance” than men, and that these characteristics — not systemic harassment, routinely being passed over for promotions, or other well-documented instances of sexism in tech culture — are the reason why women do not succeed as often as men do in the high-pressure industry.

He also argues that men have a “higher drive for status” than women, and suggests that this factor, rather than well-documented gender biases in the workplace, may be responsible for the lack of women in leadership positions both at Google and in the tech industry as a whole.

Finally, Damore calls for Google to “De-empathize empathy,” arguing that “being emotionally unengaged [with the issue of diversity] helps us better reason about the facts.” He decries political correctness, discounting the very concept of unconscious bias and arguing against unconscious bias training for Google employees.

Damore generally attempts to support his arguments by citing individual research papers about two pernicious approaches to classifying human ability: biological essentialism and biological determinism.

Biological essentialism is the belief that people of different genders, race, and sexual orientation are all innately, essentially different due to a set of nebulous predetermined biological factors. Along with all other kinds of essentialist thinking, the scientific establishment routinely warns against biological essentialism as fundamentally unscientific.

“Biological essentialism — the idea that men and women are ‘programmed’ to desire certain things — has been largely discredited,” the Guardian noted last year. Tristan Bridges, a sociology professor at the College at Brockport State University of New York, told the Guardian that this is “because [biological essentialism] relies on stereotypes of early humans, and the adaptive problems they faced that are historically inaccurate and fail to account for much of what we know about how early humans lived.”

Instead, many scientists agree that stereotypes about how men and women are supposed to act, reinforced by social structures, is a major factor in how people act. “Through a rather constructivist approach most studies show that no scientific experiment has proved the existence of systematic and/or significant biological sex differences in most cognitive functions,” notes a 2010 Stanford research paper examining stereotypes and gender identity.

Biological determinism is the belief that hereditary genetics determine most factors about individuals. This belief led to the appalling eugenics experiments of the early 20th century, and in the decades since it has been thoroughly debunked by the mainstream scientific establishment.

Scientists have been issuing warnings for nearly two decades that biological essentialism and determinism, with their implied justifications for racism and homophobia, are creeping back into scientific theory. “The limitations of women’s brains are on the front line in this battle of ideas,” wrote a team of researchers in 2005, in response to a piece of gender essentialism which argued that “the male brain is the ‘systematizing brain,’ while the female’s is the ‘empathizing’ brain.”

Writing for the Guardian in response to Damore’s memo, Angela Saini, the author of Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong, offered a good summary of why this view of gender is fundamentally flawed. She notes that at this point in the development of neuropsychology, it’s well-established that differences in individual neurology have virtually nothing to do with gender.

“There isn’t a neuroscientist alive who can say with confidence which sex any given brain belongs to,” she writes. She also explains that Damore’s use of individual scientific articles to support his arguments is misguided, because science as a whole relies on scientific consensus rather than individual findings in individual papers — and scientific consensus does not support Damore’s biological essentialism or determinism.

Instead, longstanding scientific consensus holds that the way humans develop is fundamentally more complicated than a simple matter of “nature versus nurture.” But people who believe in essentialism and determinism frequently challenge this view, often in an attempt to lend scientific credence to bigoted belief systems.

Unsurprisingly, the memo has been met with plenty of anger and concern. Many people who’ve discussed it publicly or in conversations that have since been leaked to the press seem to agree that its arguments are faulty and dangerous. Furthermore, many Google employees find it particularly troubling that Damore felt empowered to widely share such harmful views of gender on the company’s internal employee forum.

One engineer reportedly wrote that the memo had caused “irreparable harm … to 1000s of Googlers,” and that “going forward, I cannot — and I will not — work with James Damore.” He went on to detail the ways in which he would not engage with or interact with Damore, his code, or his product development.

On Saturday, Danielle Brown, Google's recently appointed vice president of diversity, responded to Damore’s memo and the backlash it generated via an internal memo to employees. Brown unequivocally dismissed Damore’s arguments, noting, “Like many of you, I found that it advanced incorrect assumptions about gender. I'm not going to link to it here as it's not a viewpoint that I or this company endorses, promotes or encourages.”

Declaring that Google is “unequivocal in our belief that diversity and inclusion are critical to our success as a company," she went on to assert that all employees with “alternative views, including different political views, [should] feel safe sharing their opinions.” “But,” she added, “that discourse needs to work alongside the principles of equal employment found in our Code of Conduct, policies, and anti-discrimination laws.”

When contacted by email, a Google spokesperson also shared a response to Damore’s memo written by Ari Balogh, Google’s VP of engineering:

I’d like to respond to the "pc-considered-harmful" post. Questioning our assumptions and sharing different perspectives is an important part of our culture, and we want to continue fostering an environment where it’s safe to engage in challenging conversations in a thoughtful way. But, in the process of doing that, we cannot allow stereotyping and harmful assumptions to play any part. 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.

Building an open, inclusive environment is core to who we are, and the right thing to do. ‘Nuff said.

But neither Brown’s nor Balogh’s responses did much to allay the outrage and concerns shared by many of Damore’s fellow Google employees. “There are certain ‘alternative views, including different political views,’ which I do not want people to feel safe to share here,” one engineering manager reportedly wrote in response to Brown’s memo. Several employees openly questioned whether Damore would be fired. One employee reportedly wrote that if Google’s human resources department did not discipline Damore, she would seriously consider leaving the company.

On Monday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai sent an email titled “Our words matter” to Google staff noting that while the company “strongly support[s] the right of Googlers to express themselves, and much of what was in that memo is fair to debate,” Damore’s memo had violated parts of the company’s Code of Conduct “and cross[ed] the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.”

Pichai continued:

To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK. ... The memo has clearly impacted our co-workers, some of whom are hurting and feel judged based on their gender. Our co-workers shouldn’t have to worry that each time they open their mouths to speak in a meeting, they have to prove that they are not like the memo states, being “agreeable” rather than “assertive,” showing a “lower stress tolerance,” or being “neurotic.”

At the same time, there are co-workers who are questioning whether they can safely express their views in the workplace (especially those with a minority viewpoint). They too feel under threat, and that is also not OK. People must feel free to express dissent. So to be clear again, many points raised in the memo — such as the portions criticizing Google’s trainings, questioning the role of ideology in the workplace, and debating whether programs for women and underserved groups are sufficiently open to all — are important topics. The author had a right to express their views on those topics — we encourage an environment in which people can do this and it remains our policy to not take action against anyone for prompting these discussions.

The past few days have been very difficult for many at the company, and we need to find a way to debate issues on which we might disagree — while doing so in line with our Code of Conduct.

The range of reactions to the memo raises questions about the role of free speech in creating safe work environments for all employees

After Damore’s memo was made public, many people echoed the appalled feelings of Google employees who’d spoken out against it. The faulty logic behind the memo dominated the discussion, as did explanations of why Damore’s decision to post it was so inherently damaging.

In a lengthy open letter to Damore, Yonatan Zunger, a former Google employee who only recently left the company, shared his views from the perspective of having been a distinguished engineer — an extremely high-level position at Google. Zunger noted that, “despite speaking very authoritatively,” Damore “does not appear to understand” gender, engineering, or “the consequences of what he wrote, either for others or himself.”

Zunger, who wrote as is if he were still working at Google and had been tasked with handling the situation internally, addressed Damore directly to explain not only why the beliefs outlined in his memo are so dangerous, but why writing and posting the memo was such a terrible judgment call:

What you just did was incredibly stupid and harmful. You just put out a manifesto inside the company arguing that some large fraction of your colleagues are at root not good enough to do their jobs, and that they’re only being kept in their jobs because of some political ideas. And worse than simply thinking these things or saying them in private, you’ve said them in a way that’s tried to legitimize this kind of thing across the company, causing other people to get up and say “wait, is that right?”

I need to be very clear here: not only was nearly everything you said in that document wrong, the fact that you did that has caused significant harm to people across this company, and to the company’s entire ability to function....

And as for its impact on you: Do you understand that at this point, I could not in good conscience assign anyone to work with you? I certainly couldn’t assign any women to deal with this, a good number of the people you might have to work with may simply punch you in the face, and even if there were a group of like-minded individuals I could put you with, nobody would be able to collaborate with them. You have just created a textbook hostile workplace environment.

But not everyone was unified in their opposition to Damore’s memo. A set of informal polls that reportedly circulated internally among Google employees and were subsequently leaked online show a more divided set of reactions, ranging from strong agreement with its position to strong disapproval:

It’s important to note that, as indicated in images above, fewer than 300 of the Google’s thousands of employees responded. But the results do hint at deeper underlying ideological differences at Google, and suggest that at least some of the company’s employees agree with Damore’s claims that his views are seen as anathema to a productive workplace and thus should be shamed into silence.

Both inside and outside Google, Damore’s memo has garnered him open supporters, with one blogger calling him “the only set of balls left at Google.” Meanwhile, Motherboard spoke to an anonymous Google employee who described the reaction among his fellow employees as “a mix of women saying, ‘This is terrible and it’s been distracting me from my work and it shouldn’t be allowed;’ Men and women saying ‘this is horrible but we need to let him have a voice;’ and men saying ‘This is so brave, I agree.“

The ensuing debate over his memo and subsequent firing has inevitably touched on issues of free speech and whether any workplace should allow such harmful ideas to safely be voiced. And one overarching theme of that debate has been the argument that free speech cannot and should not be an excuse for employees to spread and legitimize harmful ways of thinking or encourage the dehumanization of other people — especially when the dehumanizing arguments are linked to bad science.

Had Google been willing to tolerate the posting of the memo in the spirit of supporting free speech, such tolerance would undoubtedly have been a deal breaker for many of the company’s employees who were unsettled by the notion that it could embolden more of their co-workers to advocate for sexist or racist views.

It’s no secret that Google (to say nothing of the tech industry at large) has a diversity problem. The company’s most recent workforce representation data revealed that, despite its various ongoing diversity initiatives, 69 percent of the company’s total workforce is male, while 56 percent is white. (At many other leading technology companies, these numbers are far worse.) In turn, Google acknowledged that, “While we’ve made progress in recent years for both women and people of color, there are areas for improvement across the board” — and insisted that it is actively working to hire more women engineers and people of color.

In her weekend memo to employees, Brown argued that Damore’s memo is an unfortunate reaction to Google’s progressively changing culture. “Strong stands elicit strong reactions,” she wrote. But the kind of bias and resistance to change implied by the memo seem to fall in line with the endless accounts of harassment and a deeply embedded “bro culture” that’ve been well-documented by women across the tech industry, and indicate that Google might need to take a much stronger stand in order to make a real difference.

By firing Damore, the company has made it clear that such hostility won’t be tolerated. But Damore’s memo, and the support it has received from some, has also made it clear that the tech industry’s undercurrent of sexism and resistance to change is deeply embedded. And firing a single employee won’t solve that problem anytime soon.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Damore has a doctorate in systems biology from Harvard, which he listed on his LinkedIn profile. A representative from Harvard has confirmed to Vox that Damore actually has a master’s degree in systems biology, not a PhD.