How Google (and Academia) Should Reconcile Inclusion Efforts with Viewpoint Diversity

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.

 

13 thoughts on “How Google (and Academia) Should Reconcile Inclusion Efforts with Viewpoint Diversity”

  1. What I would really like to know is, why is diversity an important goal? Isn’t objective competence wherever derived more important? “Diversity” as currently practiced is asking the modern-day equivalent of, “Why are there so many Jews in Hollywood/banking/diamond cutting?” The correct answer is, “who cares?”

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    1. I agree that on some level these diversity objectives end up feeling like some new version of the old “there are too many of X in Y,” but motive does matter, and does affect result. Diversity is especially important in a law school classroom, for example, because the law affects us all, has built in systemic injustices, and requires purchase by all members of the population and all demographics for its legitimacy. Students also learn so much more when confronted by others with different backgrounds.

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  2. Google fired him because his ideas about women were deemed “sexual harassment” by the women at google, who threatened to sue if he wasn’t fired for creating a hostile work environment.

    It wasn’t because he disagreed, but because he was being hostile (fighting words?) by sexually harassing the female employees, which isn’t protected speech.

    If he had made the same claims about blacks, gays, or muslims, that would’ve been deemed racial harassment, homophobia, or religious harassment respectively, and would’ve also been grounds for termination due to creating a hostile work environment for a minority (i.e. promoting majority supremacy).

    People have a right to express ideas, but that doesn’t include minority group-based harassment that creates hostility.

    If you worked at a Native American reservation and someone started making claims about whites, that person would have to be fired for creating a hostile work environment for you, correct?

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    1. Suggesting traits, skills, IQ, or life-goals are bell-curve distributed over populations is literally the definition of promoting stereotypes which is hostility, i.e. sexual harassment, not a form of free speech protected by the first amendment as incorporated through the liberty clause of the fourteenth amendment.

      Like with fighting words (say, burning a cross in black man’s front lawn), the only possible reaction to suggestions of bell-curve-distributed populations is feeling unsafe, since it is scientifically-untenable and merely a justification for discriminatory hiring practices that would lead to mass unemployment. It’s no different than just coming right out and saying that some groups are inferior to others, which is sexual harassment (libel), not free speech.

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      1. Under Title VII, sexual harassment requires severity and/or pervasiveness. Just mentioning gender stereotypes does not suffice and is, I would maintain, protected speech. In addition, as you know from VA v. Black, simply burning the cross (which I obviously do not condone) is not sufficient to remove criminal protection unless the prosecutor proves intent to intimidate, so that is a complicated case. Sexual harassment and libel are different things, and it is certainly protected speech to say that some groups are inferior to others. Perhaps you are from Europe, where this speech is not protected, but our 1st A freedoms are more robust here.

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      1. But it wasn’t the substance of his views, it’s that they constituted group libel, i.e., hostility, i.e., sexual harassment.

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        1. I’m not sure what you mean. Hostility makes sense, but he wasn’t hostile – he was very respectful in tone. It was the substance of his views that were deemed inappropriate – and simply labeling it as harassment doesn’t make it so (or at least doesn’t insulate Google from the criticism that they are imposing ideological litmus tests). Group libel isn’t an actual speech category, and harassment requires severity and pervasiveness (at least legally).

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  3. Since accusations of sexism can ruin a career, should an employer be presumed innocent of discrimination (and sexual harassment) until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt?

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