Yesterday, after reading the news, my daughter asked me a question. “Mom, is it true that there are biological reasons why there are fewer women in tech and leadership?”
That question, whether it’s been asked outright, whispered quietly, or simply lingered in the back of someone’s mind, has weighed heavily on me throughout my career in technology. Though I’ve been lucky to work at a company where I’ve received a lot of support—from leaders like Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Eric Schmidt, and Jonathan Rosenberg to mentors like Bill Campbell—my experience in the tech industry has shown me just how pervasive that question is.
Time and again, I’ve faced the slights that come with that question. I’ve had my abilities and commitment to my job questioned. I’ve been left out of key industry events and social gatherings. I’ve had meetings with external leaders where they primarily addressed the more junior male colleagues. I’ve had my comments frequently interrupted and my ideas ignored until they were rephrased by men. No matter how often this all happened, it still hurt.
So when I saw the memo that circulated last week, I once again felt that pain, and empathized with the pain it must have caused others. I thought about the women at Google who are now facing a very public discussion about their abilities, sparked by one of their own co-workers. I thought about the women throughout the tech field who are already dealing with the implicit biases that haunt our industry (which I’ve written about before), now confronting them explicitly. I thought about how the gender gap persists in tech despite declining in other STEM fields, how hard we’ve been working as an industry to reverse that trend, and how this was yet another discouraging signal to young women who aspire to study computer science. And as my child asked me the question I’d long sought to overcome in my own life, I thought about how tragic it was that this unfounded bias was now being exposed to a new generation.
Some of those responding to the memo are trying to defend its authorship as an issue of free speech. As a company that has long supported free expression, Google obviously stands by the right that employees have to voice, publish or tweet their opinions. But 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. Every day, companies take action against employees who make unlawful statements about co-workers, or create hostile work environments.
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.
I thought about all of this, looked at my daughter and answered simply.
“No, it’s not true.”
Susan Wojcicki is the chief executive officer of YouTube.