ICYMI: A Google employee circulated a manifesto about how women are biologically bad at software, and then things got worse

You may have seen recent discussion of some shitty goings-on at Google and wondered what it was all about. If that is the case, trust me, you’re good. Keep wondering. There’s already enough going on the world that sucks without piling this on, too.

Still reading? Fine, your call.

A Google employee, since identified as James Damore, recently circulated a 10-page manifesto called “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” on Google’s internal email list. The “ideology” he focuses on in the manifesto is that any lack of diversity is the result of women being bad at software engineering on account of biology, and thus any concerted efforts toward gender diversity are wrongheaded and unfair.

A lot of Google employees did not like it.

Google’s newly appointed VP of Diversity, Danielle Brown, who was really hoping to have a chance to put her pens in her pen cup before having to face down the kind of shitshow she was now saddled with, reiterated Google’s commitment to diversity in a memo to Google employees. (Not everyone found it sufficient.)

Damore was fired because, per Google CEO Sundar Pichai, “portions of the memo violate [their] Code of Conduct and cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in [their] workplace.”

Other people didn’t like that.

After that, it all got better. Hahaha! No, it got much worse. Much, much worse. Here’s the rundown.

The part where Caperton refuses to make a “man-ifesto” pun

Damore’s argument, in a very large nutshell, is that based on biology, women are inherently not as good at being software engineers as men are. Ladyfolk are all feel-y and people-oriented and social/artistic and neurotic, and none of that fits in with the totally realistic nature of software engineering where solitary geeks work at solitary computers in total darkness except for the green light of their monitor shining on their face like you see on TV. Google’s diversity policies, he says, are discriminatory, and Google should treat people as individuals, like the individuals who are women and thus worse at their job.

Also, he says, Google neglects diversity of viewpoint and is biased against conservatives and conservatives feel like they can’t express their viewpoints, like the viewpoint that women are bad at their job because genetics.

Want to read it? No, you don’t.

Okay, fine. Here.

Did he legitimately think that his manifesto wouldn’t have a negative effect on 31 percent of his colleagues? Did he think that it would, but he didn’t care? Did he think that it would, but that was the goal? Without getting into his icky cesspool of a head, I’m in no position to speculate that it’s totally the second one.

The part where Caperton refuses to make a “You’re Fired” joke, because we’re at a point in society where it only brings up bad feelings

Regardless, he’s been fired by Google. There’s been a lot of discussion about whether or not that firing was justified, most of which boils down to two sides:

Side 1: Thoughtcrime! You can’t penalize someone for their thoughts — only for their actions.

Side 2: Writing your thoughts down and circulating them on the company intranet is definitely an action.

Google appears to be leaning toward the second side, as evidenced by the fact that they fired him. And with California being an employ-at-will state — meaning that in most cases, employers can terminate employees without having to show cause — one might imagine that Damore will have to do some work to establish that his firing was actionable. However, I am not a lawyer, and some people who are lawyers say that Damore might have grounds to sue, arguing that the firing was retaliatory to a complaint he made to the NLRB, plus complaining about ostensibly illegal working conditions is protected by California law. Alternately, other people who are lawyers say, Google might be in the clear if they argue that he was fired because the memo was factually inaccurate, was unprofessional, and antagonized employees.

From a purely non-lawyer position, I have the following opinions:

1. Damore’s manifesto has obviously created a hostile-AF work environment in which numerous female employees have expressed an unwillingness to work with a guy who finds them genetically inferior at their job and has expressed such thought to the world. That is, if nothing else, going to cause productivity issues, and would almost certainly be a source of HR complaints.

2. I don’t know what Damore’s employment contract looks like, but many such contracts include a non-disparagement clause — don’t talk shit, and don’t make us look bad. I don’t know if criticizing your employer to your coworkers, with the intention of keeping it all internal, constitutes disparagement, but employing this asshat was definitely not a good look for Google.

3. As evidenced by the CEO’s memo, Google does have a code of conduct establishing a line that Damore crossed, so there’s that.

4. In my opinion, ideological diversity actually is inherently valuable. (Pichai even said in his memo that much of what was said in the manifesto was “fair to debate,” whether Google employees disagreed with it or not.) That’s one reason that gender, ethnic, and other types of diversity are inherently valuable — they provide a wider range of experiences and perspectives that help solve problems and produce ideas in new and creative ways. (That’s if you don’t accept that diversity is flat-out valuable in its own right.) People should feel free to express differing opinions.

However. “Being politically conservative” (or however else this dude defines his self-declared conservatism) isn’t, in and of itself, an ideological stance. It’s a collection of ideological stances, and each collection is unique to each individual. If your position is that nearly a third of your fellow employees are inferior at their job on a genetic level, and you’re criticized for that, it’s not because your workplace is hostile to conservatism — it’s because your workplace is hostile to openly insulting entire classes of other employees. Employers have the right to draw the line somewhere, and most employers of any political persuasion will draw that one. (Imagine an employee at Hobby Lobby shit-talking their Christian coworkers and then crying about ideological diversity. See how long they last.)

5. Seriously, just fuck that guy.

What other people have to say

Here’s what other people have to say:

Yonatan Zunger, a former senior-level Google employee who wasn’t on staff when this whole thing went down, weighs in, talking about the requirements and skillsets associated with being a software engineer at Google — noting that the (as-yet-unnamed, at the time of his post) manifesteer was likely a fairly low-level engineer if he hadn’t experienced that yet. And he speaks to how absolutely stupid it was for the dude to publish it at all.

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?”

[…]

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.

[…]

You talked about a need for discussion about ideas; you need to learn the difference between “I think we should adopt Go as our primary language” and “I think one-third of my colleagues are either biologically unsuited to do their jobs, or if not are exceptions and should be suspected of such until they can prove otherwise to each and every person’s satisfaction.” Not all ideas are the same, and not all conversations about ideas even have basic legitimacy.

Cynthia Lee, a lecturer in computer science at Stanford, talks about the experiences of women in computer science and why people are so pissed off:

t’s important to appreciate the background of endless skepticism that every woman in tech faces, and the resulting exhaustion we feel as the legitimacy of our presence is constantly questioned.

[…]

To be a woman in tech is to know the thrill of participating in one of the most transformative revolutions humankind has known, to experience the crystalline satisfaction of finding an elegant solution to an algorithmic challenge, to want to throw the monitor out the window in frustration with a bug and, later, to do a happy dance in a chair while finally fixing it. To be a woman in tech is also to always and forever be faced with skepticism that I do and feel all those things authentically enough to truly belong. There is always a jury, and it’s always still out.

[…]

The author was not simply listing various items of scientific news at random, for the reader’s information only. He was building a case for ending specific, real programs that affect very real people. If his proposals were adopted, it wouldn’t be some abstract concept of “average” that doesn’t get a scholarship, it will be an actual individual woman. It will be an actual female Googler who doesn’t get to attend the Grace Hopper Conference, which provides many women with their first experience of being in a majority-women tech conference space.

[…]

In the end, focusing the conversation on the minutiae of the scientific claims in the manifesto is a red herring. Regardless of whether biological differences exist, there is no shortage of glaring evidence, in individual stories and in scientific studies, that women in tech experience bias and a general lack of a welcoming environment, as do underrepresented minorities. Until these problems are resolved, our focus should be on remedying that injustice. After that work is complete, we can reassess whether small effect size biological components have anything to do with lingering imbalances.

Current and former employees weighed in on Twitter:

What’s happened since

Remember the “much, much worse” part, noted above?

All of the gross Internet alt-righters lined up to have Damore’s back.

Alt-right YouTube opened their arms to him.

Julian Assange offered him a job, because “censorship is for losers.”

An anonymous group launched a crowdfunding effort to “help James get back on his feet.”

Google planned a Google-wide townhall meeting to discuss the whole situation, but had to cancel it because of online harassment. Atl-right shitstains including 4chan, Vox Day, Breitbart, and (the mysteriously still relevant) Milo Yiannopolous began posting Twitter profiles of google employees and screenshots of internal discussions, leading to Gamergate-level sexist and racist harassment, doxxing, and death threats.

Then Pinchai spoke at a girls’ coding event, because nothing says “encouraging girls in STEM” like discussion of whether they’re biologically capable of being good at software engineering and harassment of people who think the software industry might be a little bit sexist.

Further updates if, God forbid, events should warrant.

Woman sitting at computer keyboard with computer code superimposed over her face

“Will someone explain this to me? My boobs make coding so confusing.” (Photo credit Nullplus/Getty Stock)


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4 comments for “ICYMI: A Google employee circulated a manifesto about how women are biologically bad at software, and then things got worse

  1. Angie unduplicated
    August 12, 2017 at 11:01 am

    One obvious reason why women are “more social” is their attempts to discover who and where the haters are, and develop allies against them. I use “they” because I’m surrounded by haters and have given up for now.

    Google, and corporate America in general, should get a clue that time spent watching one’s back or another’s and time spent on hater damage mitigation, is time spent unproductively. It is disastrous for creatives and stressful for the rest of us workforce grunts. Stress reduces productivity even more and increases absenteeism and medical costs.

    Recommending, once again, “The No Asshole Rule”, authored by Stanford Business School genius Robert Sutton. Estimated cost of one asshole in a workforce is over $30,000. Alphabet stockholders should take notice of sexism as a ginormous toilet flushing away their dividends.

    • Q
      August 13, 2017 at 6:14 pm

      the point is there are infinite definitions for the word “asshole”, so since everybody is somebody’s asshole, filtering by “asshole” is measurably useless. As such, “watching one’s back” is an inevitable consequence of existing with other humans. The only way to ensure a level playing field is to attempt to setup a system where all individuals must “watch one’s back” equally.

      Note that equally does not equal “fairly” or “within reason” as these are also subjective and therefor useless for providing measurable context.

  2. Alex
    August 13, 2017 at 2:46 am

    I feel it’s important to highlight that Google should not get away from this ordeal looking like its own hands are clean.

    Sexism in STEM comes from normalized sexism in STEM-based socialization, and a huge chunk of that socialization comes from the way STEM education is run. Funding for this education often come from tech corporations, which often have considerable sway over the curriculum. In other words, if Google was truly committed to equality it would have leveraged its monetary influence over university curriculum to spread gender awareness in particular, and social justice more broadly. Frankly I don’t see them doing this.

    Lest we give too much power to the conservative trope of “big evil progressive company versus poor powerless little sexist”, it’s worthwhile to point out that tech firms in the status quo do not deserve the mantle “progressive”. Without the cyberfeminist outcry over the blog, no punishment would have been delivered.

    A note on punishment though, in an alternative world where jobs are organized differently, it might have been possible to reeducate the guy instead of firing him. Said guy had the nerve to make a t-shirt that says “Goolag” … the irony is rich.

    • Q
      August 13, 2017 at 6:16 pm

      wow… I mean, I know the word “koolaid” is a common silicon valley phrase but “reeducation”? Jesus… #bladeRunnerMuch?

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