Google’s diversity problem is everyone’s problem

SUMMARY:

Grasping the prickly thorn of diversity is never easy and for one engineer at Google, it has brought the wrath of many. But was he right?

Over the weekend, I watched the diversity debacle over at Google unfold. It’s not pretty but the good news is that it holds lessons for everyone – and not just those who are part of the technology industry.

What happened at Google?

Last Friday, an engineer circulated an internal memo entitled: Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber. It didn’t take long for the memo to go viral inside Google and then out to the Interwebs via selected Tweets. Techmeme has the many threads on this topic.

We cannot know the motivation behind the memo and on its face, I don’t find the totality of the memo especially offensive although plenty saw it as blatantly sexist. This passage in particular caught attention:

Note, I’m not saying that all men differ from women in the following ways or that these differences are “just.” 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. Many of these differences are small and there’s significant overlap between men and women, so you can’t say anything about an individual given these population level distributions.

Of itself, there is nothing particularly controversial in the statement – nature/nurture debates continue to this day. However, the writer then went to list a whole set of unsupported reasons to underpin this idea. This passage certainly raised temperatures with some arguing the engineer has little understanding what it takes to create productive development teams – or any teams for that matter:

I’ve heard several calls for increased empathy on diversity issues. While I strongly support trying to understand how and why people think the way they do, relying on affective empathy—feeling another’s pain—causes us to focus on anecdotes, favor individuals similar to us, and harbor other irrational and dangerous biases. Being emotionally unengaged helps us better reason about the facts.

Gizmodo has the full screed.

The public media response

The public media response was ugly. Kara Swisher at re/code expressed the general tenor of those who were sharply critical of the memo:

It contains a series of what I can only describe as sexist twaddle, wrapped in the undeserved protection of free speech. (Hey bros who don’t agree, that’s just my opinion, so you’ll have to take it because … First Amendment and all!)

Ms Swisher is no shrinking violet on diversity topics but I’m not sure her phrasing is terribly helpful. I prefer to view the memo as partially ill-informed on the basic principles of bias and collaboration, a topic to which the author attempts to draw attention but to little avail since the concentration of response was to focus on the claimed anti-diversity elements.

Google swats back

Danielle Brown, Google’s newly minted diversity officer was in an impossible position. New in the job and faced with an existential crisis, she paused before making clear that the views expressed in the memo are not shared by Google: 

Many of you have read an internal document shared by someone in our engineering organization, expressing views on the natural abilities and characteristics of different genders, as well as whether one can speak freely of these things at Google. And 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.

Diversity and inclusion are a fundamental part of our values and the culture we continue to cultivate. We are unequivocal in our belief that diversity and inclusion are critical to our success as a company, and we’ll continue to stand for that and be committed to it for the long haul. As Ari Balogh said in his internal G+ post, “Building an open, inclusive environment is core to who we are, and the right thing to do. ‘Nuff said. “

Support for an unpopular view

In between, reports suggest there is support for the engineer’s point of view. I was particularly struck by this:

Motherboard spoke to one current employee who agrees with the document’s author, who wrote in the manifesto that “Google’s left bias has created a politically correct monoculture that maintains its hold by shaming dissenters into silence.”

“The fact that colleagues are calling for him to be fired—on very public forums—proves his point that there is an ideological silo and that dissenting opinions want to be silenced,” the second employee told Motherboard. “Why don’t they debate him on his argument? Because it’s easier to virtue signal by mentioning on a social network how angry and offended you are. Debate and discussion takes time.”

Where to from here?

It is difficult to know where this topic goes from here.

Grappling with any diversity issue is problematic. There is considerable nuance in each element of a topic that is situationally contextual and politically flavored. At the same time, ALL of us are a product of our individual belief system and that is a very tough nut to crack when it is bound up in a combination of superstitions, social mores and unconscious bias.

When I studied social science in the 90s we had whole sections of teaching on each form of what is essentially the study of income and wealth inequality. In order to make the subject digestible, inequality was broken down into topics of race, gender, sex and age but it all comes back to the same outcome – income and wealth inequality. In my day, the topic was deliberately biased as a critique of white middle class men and even now I see justification for that point of view. But that characterization is neither exclusive nor universal.

The fact we see this debate today expressed in often emotionally charged terms tells me that little progress has been made in the 20 years since I first started studying the topic. For example, Ms Brown’s memo acts as a shut down to the original story. In that sense, I have sympathy with those who talk about a culture of silence but then I equally understand Ms Brown’s need to deprive an otherwise incendiary topic of oxygen.

The fact the original author made some shocking errors and failed the fundamental principle of research by making unsupported statements is unquestionably worth correction. But the blanket assumption that some errors negate an entire debate is equally wrong headed. If we take that position, then entire swathes of scientific and societal advance would be swept aside.

At the very least, I believe we should step back and try figure out what an otherwise well meaning person was attempting to communicate, finding points of merit along the way.

My reading of the engineer’s memo suggests considerable frustration at issues like transparency and internal conflict. The length and breadth of the engineer’s argument also suggest someone who has spent plenty of time thinking about the topic and attempted to square off many competing issues, including the thorny problems of group think and confirmation bias. If I was marking it as an academic paper it would get a C/C-. He is definitely not a D grade student.

Regular readers know that diginomica takes strong positions where diversity is threatened with particular support for LGBT issues. We are less vocal, but not silent on the topic of gender inequality. And to round this one out, we are almost silent on issues around age and race.  We, like every organization, are far from perfect. However, if all we do is shut down those with whom we disagree, then we behave little better than a rabble.

So many of these stories become ‘mots du jour’ and then quickly fizzle until the next blow up. My sense is that organizations need view these as opportunities for improvement that can be credibly reported back into the public domain.

We all deserve better at a time when the nature of work is rapidly changing and where diversity as the positive antidote to inequality is taking center stage.

Image credit - Images from public sources

    1. Louis Mazel says:

      He was damn right !!

    2. Phil Wainewright says:

      No, he was damn wrong, as Den explains in this piece. But Den’s point, as I understand it, is that instead of shouting down such perspectives (which just leaves them unsaid) they should be countered in a way that allows people to work out for themselves the flaws in their assertions.

      That works both ways, of course. The anonymous engineer’s rejection of empathy when discussing diversity on the grounds of being “emotionally unengaged” shows how much ground this debate still has to cover.

      Research (carried out at Google, as it happens – see http://diginomica.com/2016/06/10/the-human-dimension-of-digital-collaboration/) has found that people interact best when they can feel comfortable being themselves without fear of being embarrassed, rejected or punished for speaking up. That’s why positive embrace of diversity is crucial to effective teamwork – and why I hope we can all find a better way of working through our different perspectives on this topic than simply shouting each other down.

    3. says:

      Hold up. If there’s a debate to be had around the assertion “Women are biologically and psychologically disposed to be worse programmers than men”, why isn’t there one equally to be had around the question
      “Are women capable of rational thought?” or “Are so-called ‘people’ other than white males actually human?”

      1. says:

        No one is saying that.

      2. esteban kolsky says:

        they would both be very short debates – but why not? I concur with Denis, whether right or wrong, the lack of debate and “pushing through” corroborated part of this manifesto.

        it is all open for debate – everything if you take the right attitude. in either case, sufficient data exists to counter both your above statements quickly, making a debate a moot issue. but — given the opportunity, they should be had.

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