Dueling Google Memos Reveal a Company Struggling With Culture Change
It started as an anti-diversity memo on Google’s internal mailing list. Then it tumbled—first in bits and pieces, then in its entirety—into public view.
“Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” is a 10-page manifesto published by an anonymous Google software engineer that argues several points, chiefly among them that the search giant’s left-leaning biases are shutting down conversations about their flawed diversity agenda. “[W]hen it comes to diversity and inclusion, Google’s left bias has created a politically correct monoculture that maintains its hold by shaming dissenters into silence.”
After a bit of throat-clearing, he makes his case. “At Google, we’re regularly told that implicit (unconscious) and explicit biases are holding women back in tech and leadership,” he says. “I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes,” and further, “and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership.”
The online response was swift and angry. (Fortune’s David Z. Morris has an excellent recap here.) It also pulled back the curtain briefly on the search giant’s efforts to do what to some seems impossible: Transform a culture of tech machismo into one of harmonious inclusion.
Danielle Brown, Google’s brand new vice president of diversity, integrity, and governance rushed to introduce herself to the company, then weigh in on the memo. “[L]ike 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,” she wrote in an internal note obtained by Motherboard.
An executive response was essential, particularly as the company currently faces an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor for paying women less than men. But the company also has some decisions to make about what to do with a man that no female engineer is going to want to work with anytime soon.
It’s not just Google. That an engineer at a blue chip firm felt it necessary to explain in excruciating detail how a woman’s biological tendencies (agreeability, neuroticism, empathy, etc.) make them less equipped than men for certain jobs felt to many like a reminder of why tech continues to be in large part a walled bro-garden. There are fewer women (or people of color) in tech because they know how awful it can be to work there. No bullet-pointed memorandum cheering for “viewpoint diversity” can put lipstick on that particular pig.
Much of the online debate understandably focuses on whether the memo was proof that Google’s attempts to change the culture of tech has failed, or worse, was more performative than prescriptive. (For what it’s worth, I think that it’s too soon to call time of death on an inclusive Google just yet. Here’s why.)
But on Saturday, engineer Yonatan Zunger posted an equal and opposite manifesto which reveals a bit more about how Google’s famously secretive culture is reacting to the memo. Zunger was most recently a Distinguished Engineer at Google, working on the privacy team. (He just left the company to work on a yet unannounced project.) “I am no longer even at the company and I’ve had to spend half of the past day talking to people and cleaning up the mess you’ve made,” he says in an open letter to the Googler. “I can’t even imagine how much time and emotional energy has been sunk into this, not to mention reputational harm more broadly.” Bottom line he says, the “meritocracy” as described in the memorandum does not represent a radically conservative path to business success; it is merely a fresh defense of a socially-acceptable version of a hostile workplace. For what it’s worth, Zunger would have fired the engineer the day the memo posted.
From his post: “Essentially, engineering is all about cooperation, collaboration, and empathy for both your colleagues and your customers. If someone told you that engineering was a field where you could get away with not dealing with people or feelings, then I’m very sorry to tell you that you have been lied to…All of these traits which the manifesto described as ‘female’ are the core traits which make someone successful at engineering.”
Getting the whole concept of engineering wrong is one thing, albeit an important one. But by demanding to see the receipts of women who work at Google, the poster crossed a line. “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.” This opinion doesn’t make him part of an oppressed minority, it makes him part of the problem. “These views are fundamentally corrosive to any organization they show up in,” he says. “I’m afraid that’s likely to remain a serious problem for you for a long time to come.”
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