A Google employee was fired on Monday for internally circulating a memo about how differences between men and women contribute to gender disparities at the tech company. The ten-page memo contained fairly insulting gender stereotypes, such as women are less adept at handling stress, and men are more willing to dedicate long hours to their work in order to achieve higher status. However, the memo was more measured than I expected from the reporting and outcry. Its author, James Damore, acknowledged the effects of sexism and the need for workplace diversity, but spoke out against the extent and unfairness of Google’s inclusion efforts and subconscious bias training. He condemned “using stereotypes” (perhaps in individual application), but examined average traits distributed in the population. The memo, although not convincing or well-executed, was, at the very least, correct about one thing: A culture of shaming certain views, even moderate views, does exist in many important institutions. Google’s dramatic step of firing Damore went beyond that shaming.
Google’s heavy-handed punishment, in the name of inclusion, actually undermines a critical purpose of gender and racial inclusion efforts. One of the benefits of diversity — a benefit I have seen first-hand in the classroom — is that diversity exposes others to different viewpoints, backgrounds, and perspectives. Google has instead impressed upon its employees that everyone must have, or must appear to have, hegemonic views about nature versus nurture in the gender debate and must advance the same explanation for gender imbalances in a tech company. There are better ways to reconcile inclusion efforts with true viewpoint diversity; the two concepts needn’t be at odds. Below, I will detail some possible approaches.
Legally, public schools cannot discriminate against employees or students on the basis of viewpoint. However, the First Amendment does not apply to private schools and companies like Google, although these institutions often tout their commitment to the principles of free expression. Private institutions that fuel social progress, such as private universities and companies like Google, should rethink how they can demonstrate their sincere commitment to gender (including gender identity and expression and sexual orientation), racial, and religious diversity without stifling moderating voices or potentially helpful counter-narratives.
Instead of firing Damore, Google could have acknowledged that the views of one individual do not create an entire workplace culture. Google could have allowed room for different views about gender, while honoring its commitment to workplace equality, by drawing a line between how employees treat individual women at the office and what views they express about these issues in general. Damore’s memo, in order for viewpoint diversity to exist on important issues, should not be deemed sufficient to make women “feel excluded.” Instead, a company or academic institution dedicated to viewpoint diversity should emphasize the conduct of an employee, not his fairly abstract views. A free speech culture requires some measure of the notion that a person either is or is not excluded by actual discriminatory behavior – simply feeling excluded is not sufficient to actually exclude, by firing, another employee.
Places like Google and private universities should therefore emphasize conduct and results over what Damore calls “psychological safety.” Ironically, Damore uses this term to describe his inability to express himself at Google, but he would have been better served (and perhaps perceived as less hypocritical) if he instead argued that some amount of psychological offense must be tolerated in a pluralistic workplace. The safety that matters most is the security in one’s job, given good performance, not safety from any psychological offense, no matter how isolated.
Companies and institutions should grapple with difficult questions regarding how much effort and expense to dedicate to diversity and inclusion initiatives, how to effectively implement these initiatives, and how much they create unintended (or intended) consequences that some may perceive as negative. Google CEO Sundar Pichai acknowledged that these topics are “fair to debate.” He claimed that Googlers are free to discuss these topics so long as they do not advance “harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.” But by firing Damore, Pichai belied any commitment to real discussion. A true debate about these issues requires grappling with all of the thorny premises.
Diversity is an important goal, but its costs should not entail silencing those who express even-handed dissent in uninflammatory ways that acknowledge the other side. Diversity policies in academia and elsewhere need not be at odds with viewpoint diversity. We must dispense with the approach that treats some topics as such “sacred cows,” such that those who show a lack of extreme commitment to the cause fear paying a real professional price. Perhaps, with true viewpoint diversity, we won’t need someone like Damore, who thinks women are inherently more neurotic than men, to be the only one who speaks out to question the finer points of an institution’s policies on certain topics.