The Google Memo is Good for Women at Google

As an ex-Googler, a woman, and the founder of a bias-fighting enterprise software company, for the past couple weeks I’ve been getting a lot of texts from friends asking for my thoughts on the Google memo news. Here’s my take: it’s great.

When someone is ill, let’s say with food poisoning, the go-to comfort is to tell them, “Better out than in.” You don’t want that poison inside you, harming you. That’s why my take on the the memo publicity is basically positive. When it comes to exposing and naming the sickness of institutional bias, my take is, better out than in. And Google has had a non-acknowledgement problem for a long time.

When I left Google, one of the driving reasons was that I felt I’d have to swim upstream against institutional gender bias and for the rest of my career there. But a bigger reason was that when I had raised that concern, the response from (male) managers was generally, “Nope, no institutional bias here.” Usually, the way to dodge bias was to claim that it does exist — maybe, generally, elsewhere — but not at Google, or not on your team.

Google is a particularly great stage for the conversation about diversity and inclusion to be thrown into relief. It’s a company that I believe truly cares about gender and other biases at the executive level, and has invested time and money into finding bias-fighting solutions. I think Google’s C-suite is genuinely bought into the idea that gender bias is real, pervasive, and deleterious to the business. But clearly that genuine buy-in does not trickle down to all Googlers.

While I was there, the evident rank-and-file management consensus was that Google is progressive, has diversity programs, talks about unconscious bias, etc., etc., and therefore doesn’t have institutional gender bias. It does, though. It has a lot.

The biggest problem perpetuating that bias is not extreme viewpoints (the memo), but the more common, forward-thinking individuals’ refusal to accept culpability and participation in the bias of the system — even as they acknowledge that bias is present. That comforting narrative of personal exceptionalism (“I’m not sexist!”) externalizes the problems of bias and discrimination, and eases middle management out of their accountability to change, while they still feel satisfied that they’re part of a company that cares about those problems generally. It neutralizes the utility of diversity and inclusion programs, morphing them into internal branding. Google can’t work on bias and discrimination if each Googler believes he or she is not really part of that problem.

Ironically, my most acute experience of the refusal to acknowledge institutional gender bias at Google was in a team-wide Lean In book discussion. My male manager’s male manager required us to read the book and participate.

After 45 minutes of limp, hesitant discussion about the book wherein everyone avoided saying anything potentially controversial about gender and bias in front of their bosses, one of the managers asked whether anyone had any criticisms of the book. I piped up.

I said my frustration with the book was that in all its recommendations and battle tales, it implies institutional bias, but doesn’t really name it or explain it. It doesn’t acknowledge how the systems of business are working against women in the workplace. It fails to introduce its wonderfully large and ready audience to the powerful understanding that there are unspoken, unintended, structural gender (and racial, and other,) biases that reinforce power imbalance and disadvantage many in business.

The managers response was incredulous:

“You don’t mean here, though?”

Yes, I did mean here.

“But not at Google,” he asserted.

That time it was a closing statement — not a probing question.

I think it’s a better Google post-memo than pre-memo. The first step to recovery is acceptance. It’s time to accept that the Google brand and executive messaging are not aligned with the daily working reality of women Googlers. To accept that messaging alone is not change enough to create an inclusive workplace — even at a company as forward-thinking as Google. That’s why this memo is doing good work, for Google and for everyone.