Society, technology and discrimination
A 10-page document written by a Google software engineer called “Google’s ideological echo chamber” that had been circulating in the company’s internal forums was published on Saturday by Gizmodo, sparking discussion, criticism, angry replies, reactions and calls for respect for diversity of opinion.
The company’s response, through its newly hired VP of Diversity, Integrity & Government, Danielle Brown, has also been included in the same article, and claims that the company’s philosophy in no way responds to the letter’s contents, that Google is fully aware of the need to build an open and inclusive culture, and that an important part of that culture is to encourage people with different views to feel secure about sharing them, but that such discourse has to be developed within the equal opportunities principles outlined in the company’s code of conduct, which is being investigated by the US Department of Labor, which accuses it of gender-based wage inequalities.
What does the letter say that has caused it to go viral? Basically, the author criticizes the company’s policies to promote diversity and, focusing exclusively on gender discrimination, attributes differences in the composition of different departments to biological and social issues, stating: “we must stop assuming that a non-egalitarian distribution of gender implies sexism,” regretting that it is not possible to discuss such views in Google because of the effect of a suffocating politically correct corporate culture.
The majority of the criticism directed toward the missive suggest that the author is opposed to equality and employs false arguments based on supposedly “natural” explanations for the lack of diversity, and that such ideas went out of date many years ago years. In fact, the discussion about the lack of diversity in companies, and especially in technology companies and software engineering posts has been going on for some time, and is enormously topical. Work environments where macho attitudes prevail, hostile climates, explicit harassment , or simply seeking to ignore these kinds of issues have been highlighted in many recent scandals, and are one of the main reasons many people are not attracted to the sector. This is a problem we are a long way from overcoming, and discussions like this can contribute to that process if properly channeled. In this case, the question is whether that process is helped by allowing someone to express opinions many people feel are part of the problem, or would it be better, even if it sounds counterintuitive, to manifest the company’s commitment to the defense of diversity by excluding such people?
I work in a business schools that leads diversity rankings in its industry and that considers diversity a fundamental part of its values. I teach courses in subjects related to technology and innovation to groups in which there is a great diversity in terms of gender, geographical origin, cultures, religions and of all kinds, and have done for a good number of years. And I am clear not only that lack of diversity is still a problem, and that it is absolutely fundamental to talk about it, to externalize it, to comment on it… in the right way. We cannot fight against a historical culture of exclusion implanted in society by allowing those who defend it to do so on an equal basis.
When an organization’s workforce does not reflect the diversity of the society around it, there is a problem and it needs to be corrected. Is it a company’s obligation to ensure that its employees constitute a coherent representation of the diversity of society? Healthy companies reflect the diversity around them, and if they do not, it is because of reasons that can be corrected. Taking refuge in biological or cultural arguments, or associating a particular race or gender with a particular type of task is toxic, absurd, outdated, false, and above all unjust.
The fact that there are few people of a given gender or race in software development, management or other positions has nothing to do with issues encoded in the genome, in the brain, or in their abilities; on the contrary, they are obvious signs of discrimination that can and should be corrected. Not with cliches, not with gestures, not with words, but with clear, determined and specific actions. Arguing that these attitudes are a “reflection of a society” or “biological questions” is an accomplice to discrimination, with all that entails or should entail.
This is no minor issue: we are faced with a fundamental problem, erroneously rooted in society for centuries, that we should all strive to correct, without half-measures, without hiding behind cliches. Without excuses.
UPDATE (08/08): The author of the document, identified as James Damore, has been fired, and Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, has addressed all the employees in a memorandum stating, among other things, that “portions of the memo violate our Code of Conduct and cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.” Here’s a good article on the subject, written by an ex-Googler on Medium.
(En español, aquí)