What If a Woman Had Written That Google Manifesto?

As if you haven’t read enough opinions about the fiasco that a Google software engineer sparked with his memo about diversity, I’m about to offer viewpoint #67,945 on the matter. Here goes:

It was not what the guy said that offended people. It was that he had the balls to say it. I mean that literally. It was because he was a man.

Before I explain what I mean, here’s a brief recap of what went down. Googler James Damore penned an internal memo, “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” in which he posited biology’s role in explaining why women are underrepresented in tech.

“We need to stop assuming that gender gaps imply sexism,” Damore wrote, citing numerous stereotypes, assumptions, and opinions explaining that chicks don’t want jobs they aren’t inherently good at. (Just stick to nursing and teaching kindergarten, ladies.)

People got offended by what they perceived as sexist remarks. Not offended enough to vote for Damore for President of the United States, but just enough for Google to fire him. The company’s diversity chief, Danielle Brown, explained that Damore’s opinion is “not a viewpoint that I or this company endorses, promotes or encourages.”

Or even discusses, apparently.

Brown continued: “Part of building an open, inclusive environment means fostering a culture in which those with alternative views, including different political views, feel safe sharing their opinions.”

“Unless Google does not agree with those opinions,” she added. “Then we will fire you for trying to raise uncomfortable questions.”

OK, she didn’t say that last part, but she kind of did when she rationalized Google’s stance by qualifying that “discourse needs to work alongside the principles of equal employment found in our Code of Conduct, policies, and anti-discrimination laws.”

Backlash to the backlash

I don’t think Damore violated any of that. And I’m not alone. Predictably, Google’s position incited a backlash to the backlash. Observers charged the organization with punishing an employee simply for raising alternative viewpoints.

One of those critics is Joanne Rencher, chief business and talent officer at Girl Scouts of the USA. She wrote:

The irony of the response from Google’s Diversity head can be missed if read too quickly.  On one hand she references the issue of speaking freely on these issues at Google, on the other, she attempts to shut down any further discussion on controversial views by towing the company line about what Google does not ‘endorse, promote or encourage.’…

The word ‘diversity’ suggests range, variety and differences.  How can this be a bad thing?…

This is bullying.  What’s worse, is that it is bullying by diversity.

I encourage you to read Jo’s entire post. I also want to point out that Jo is a black woman. Should that matter? Does that matter?

No. Yes.

What if a woman wrote it?

What if Damore had a different set of chromosomes but the same opinions? Would there still have been an adverse reaction? Sure. I would be pretty sexist myself to insinuate that women agree or disagree with other women based solely on gender.

But would the response have been as hyper had a female engineer written the same memo?

Article Continues Below

People, don’t overthink this. You know the answer. A handful of pundits would roll their eyes and maybe — maybe! — this would become a story on Breitbart. Certainly, I wouldn’t be writing about it here because I wouldn’t find out about it. (I only read reputable news on Page Six.)

Look, I’m not saying Damore’s claims were valid, or invalid. Nor am I suggesting that a woman making similar arguments would somehow legitimize them. I am, however, pointing out something we all know: Your group membership often determines the appropriateness of your remarks.

Who says it matters

Many times, it’s not what you say but who you are. Gays, blacks, women, all make a variety of observations, jokes, and use terminology about each other that they would not tolerate from others. None of this is a justification, just an explanation.

Google understands this too. YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki wrote:

[W]hat if we replaced the word ‘women’ in the memo with another group? What if the memo said that biological differences amongst Black, Hispanic, or LGBTQ employees explained their under-representation in tech and leadership roles? Would some people still be discussing the merit of the memo’s arguments or would there be a universal call for swift action against its author?

Interestingly, Wojcicki is contemplating those who are described without pondering those who are describing.

Regardless, Damore’s memo was respectful. He insisted that he values inclusion and acknowledged that sexism is a problem — and not in a some-of-my-best-friends-are-black sort of way.  He also wrote:

Of course, I may be biased and only see evidence that supports my viewpoint. In terms of political biases, I consider myself a classical liberal and strongly value individualism and reason. I’d be very happy to discuss any of the document further and provide more citations.

All this reminds me of a Twitter war I got into a while back. You guys, it was a career high for me. I was lambasted for being a white male having the “wrong” opinion on white girls in cornrows — as if there were a singular black or female or black female perspective on the issue. As I wrote then:

I’m gay. I’ve experienced homophobia in ways that you may never. While my background gives me a different perspective and may inform my viewpoint, it does not inherently validate my opinion on gay issues. That’s akin to saying that my stance on abortion matters less because I’m not a woman. My friend’s logic implies that her own stance on this issue carries less weight because she is white. Most absurdly, it suggests that even if two people agree on a subject pertaining to black people, we should value what the black person says more. As if all black people think alike. As if a black man from Compton and Oprah experience the same type and level of racism.

Which leads us back to Google. I’m surprised that a big company known for its progressiveness reacted so harshly. I’m also not surprised. It’s still a big company.

Mainly, I’m disappointed. There should be room for a plurality of opinions at work, and rather than silence dissenters, companies should use moments like this as opportunities to discuss and explore, not just preach, diversity and inclusion.

This originally appeared on Vadim Liberman’s blog at vadimliberman.com

Vadim Liberman is a talent strategist, pundit, and advocate—a chief renegade officer advancing how we think, work, and live. With an expansive background in employee engagement, internal communications, and business journalism, Vadim mixes skepticism and hope to challenge conventions and create better workplaces. Check out his blog, vadimliberman.com.

Currently, Vadim is a practice leader at The Starr Conspiracy, a marketing agency that embraces humanity in business to build emotional resonance with enterprise software and services brands. Prior, Vadim managed talent engagement at Prudential, where he often battled bureaucracy and sometimes even won. Before that, he was senior editor at TCB Review, the thought-leader magazine of The Conference Board, where he explored ideas and opinions related to business management and the myriad ways that leaders fail their organizations.

Vadim also co-organizes and speaks regularly at DisruptHR events, where he has injected Madonna, cats, and ’80s television characters into presentations to inform and energize HR and other business executives. Contact him at vadimsviews@gmail.com .

Topics