Google's Ideological Echo Chamber
"Google's Ideological Echo Chamber", commonly referred to as the Google memo, is an internal memo, dated July 2017, by US-based Google engineer James Damore about Google's diversity policies. The memo and Google's subsequent dismissal of Damore in August 2017 were widely discussed in the media.
The company fired Damore for violation of the company's code of conduct. Damore filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, but later withdrew this complaint. A lawyer with the NLRB found his firing to be proper; however such a decision is not legally binding. After withdrawing this complaint, Damore filed a class action lawsuit, alleging that Google was discriminating against conservative white men.
Course of events
James Damore was spurred to write the memo by a Google diversity program he attended, whose rhetoric he described as largely "shaming and 'no, you can't say that, that's sexist'". The memo was written on a flight to China after organizers of internal meetings about Google's practices on diversity and inclusion solicited feedback.
Calling the culture at Google an "ideological echo chamber", the memo says that while discrimination exists, it is extreme to ascribe all disparities to oppression, and it is authoritarian to try to correct disparities through reverse discrimination. Instead, it argues that male/female disparities can be partly explained by biological differences. Damore said that those differences include women generally having a stronger interest in people rather than things, and tending to be more social, artistic, and prone to neuroticism (a higher-order personality trait). Damore's memorandum also suggests ways to adapt the tech workplace to those differences to increase women's representation and comfort, without resorting to discrimination.
The memo is dated July 2017 and was originally shared on an internal mailing list. It was later updated with a preface affirming the author's opposition to workplace sexism and stereotyping. On August 5, a version of the memo (omitting sources and graphs) was published by Gizmodo. The memo's publication resulted in controversy across social media, and in public criticism of the memo and its author from some Google employees. According to Wired, Google's internal forums showed some support for Damore, who said he received private thanks from employees who were afraid to come forward.
Damore was fired remotely by Google on August 7, 2017. The same day, prior to being fired, Damore filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (case no. 32-CA-203891). The complaint is marked as "8(a)(1) Coercive Statements (Threats, Promises of Benefits, etc.)".[clarification needed] A subsequent statement from Google asserted that its executives were unaware of the complaint when they fired Damore, as it is illegal to fire an employee in retaliation of an NLRB complaint. Following his firing, Damore announced he would pursue legal action against Google.
Google's VP of Diversity, Danielle Brown, responded to the memo on August 8: "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. But that discourse needs to work alongside the principles of equal employment found in our Code of Conduct, policies, and anti-discrimination laws". Google's CEO Sundar Pichai wrote a note to Google employees, supporting Brown's formal response, and adding that much of the document was fair to debate. His explanation read "to suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK ... At the same time, there are co-workers who are questioning whether they can safely express their views in the workplace (especially those with a minority viewpoint). They too feel under threat, and that is also not OK." Unauthorized ads criticizing Pichai and Google for the firing were put up shortly after. Damore characterized the response by Google executives as having "shamed" him for his views. CNN described the fallout as "perhaps the biggest setback to what has been a foundational premise for [Google] employees: the freedom to speak up about anything and everything".
Damore gave interviews to Bloomberg Technology and to the YouTube channels of Canadian professor Jordan Peterson and podcaster Stefan Molyneux. Damore stated that he wanted his first interviews to be with media who were not hostile. He wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, detailing the history of the memo and Google's reaction, followed by interviews for Reason magazine, Reddit's "IAmA" section, CNN, CNBC, Business Insider, and political commentator Ben Shapiro.
In response to the memo, Google's CEO planned an internal "town hall" meeting, fielding questions from employees on inclusivity. The meeting was cancelled a short time before it was due to start, over safety concerns as "our Dory questions appeared externally this afternoon, and on some websites, Googlers are now being named personally". Outlets found to be posting these names, with pictures, included 4chan, Breitbart News, and Milo Yiannopoulos's blog. Danielle Brown, Google's VP for diversity, was harassed online, and temporarily disabled her Twitter account.
Damore withdrew his complaint with the National Labor Relations Board before they released any official findings. However, shortly before the withdrawal, an internal NLRB memo found that his firing was legal. The memo, which was only released publicly in February 2018, said that while the law shielded him from being fired solely for criticizing Google, it did not protect discriminatory statements, that his memo's "statements regarding biological differences between the sexes were so harmful, discriminatory, and disruptive as to be unprotected", and that these "discriminatory statements", not his criticisms of Google, were the reason for his firing.
After withdrawing his complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, Damore and another ex-Google employee instead shifted his focus to a class action lawsuit accusing Google of various forms of discrimination against conservatives, white people, and men. Another engineer, Tim Chevalier, later filed a lawsuit against Google claiming that he was terminated in part for criticizing Damore's memo on Google's internal message boards.
On the science
Responses from scientists who study gender and psychology reflected the controversial nature of the science Damore cited.
Some commentators in the academic community said he had gotten the science right, such as Debra Soh, a sexual neuroscientist at York University in Toronto; Jordan Peterson, Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto; Lee Jussim, a professor of social psychology at Rutgers University; and Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychology professor at University of New Mexico. David P. Schmitt, former professor of psychology at Bradley University; said that the memo was right about average group differences, but one could not use it to judge individuals.
Others said that he had got the science wrong and relied on data that was suspect, outdated, irrelevant, or otherwise flawed; these included Gina Rippon, chair of cognitive brain imaging at Aston University; evolutionary biologist Suzanne Sadedin; Rosalind Barnett, a psychologist at Brandeis University, and Caryl Rivers, a professor of journalism at Boston University.
Journalistic coverage of the science behind the memo reflected these concerns; Angela Saini said that Damore failed to understand the research he cited, while John Horgan criticized the track record of evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics. Owen Jones said that the memo was "guff dressed up with pseudo-scientific jargon" and cited a former Google employee saying that it failed to show the desired qualities of an engineer.
Impact on Google
Prior to his interview with Damore, Steve Kovach interviewed a female Google employee for Business Insider who said she objected to the memo, saying it lumped all women together, and that it came across as a personal attack. Business Insider also reported that several women were preparing to leave Google by interviewing for other jobs. Reporter Oliver Staley focused on the claim in the memo that "men are more competitive than women" for innate biological reasons. In an article for Quartz, he pointed to a 2009 study by a team of economists which found evidence against this. Within Google, the memo sparked discussions among staff, some of whom were disciplined or fired for their comments supporting diversity or for criticizing Damore's beliefs.
Concerns about sexism
In addition to Sheryl Sandberg, who linked to scientific counterarguments, a number of other women in technology condemned the memorandum, including Megan Smith, a former Google vice president, Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube, wrote an editorial in which she described feeling devastated about the potential effect of the memo on young women. Laurie Leshin, president of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, said that she was heartened by the backlash against the memo, which gave her hope that things were changing. Kara Swisher of Recode criticized the memo as sexist; Cynthia B. Lee, a computer science lecturer at Stanford University stated that there is ample evidence for bias in tech and that correcting this was more important than whether biological differences might account for a proportion of the numerical imbalances in Google and in technology.
Cathy Young in USA Today said that while the memo had legitimate points, it probably overstates things, while Google's reaction to the memo was harmful since it fed into arguments that men are oppressed in modern workplaces. Libertarian author Megan McArdle, writing for Bloomberg View, said that Damore's claims about differing levels of interest between the sexes reflected her own experiences.
UC Hastings legal scholar Joan C. Williams expressed concerns about the prescriptive language used by some diversity training programs and recommended that diversity initiatives be phrased in problem-solving terms.
Employment law and free speech concerns
Yuki Noguchi, a reporter for NPR, said that Damore's firing has raised questions regarding the limits of free speech in the workplace. First Amendment free speech protections usually do not extend into the workplace, as the First Amendment restricts government action but not the actions of private employers, and employers have a duty to protect their employees against a hostile work environment.
Several employment law experts[who?] noted that while Damore could challenge his firing in court, his potential case would be weak and Google would arguably have several defensible reasons for firing him; had Google not made a substantive response to his memo, that could have been cited as evidence of a "hostile work environment" in lawsuits against Google. Additionally, they argued that the memo could indicate that Damore would be unable to fairly assess or supervise the work of female colleagues. Jim Edwards of Business Insider argued that Damore did not have a free speech case for being fired.
Google's reaction to the memo and its firing of Damore were criticized by several cultural commentators, including Margaret Wente of The Globe and Mail, Erick Erickson, a conservative writer for RedState, David Brooks of the New York Times, and Clive Crook of Bloomberg View.
Others objected to the intensity of the broader response to the memo in the media and across the internet, such as CNN's Kirsten Powers, Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic and Jesse Singal, writing in the Boston Globe
Peter Singer, a philosopher best known for utilitarianism, drew attention to the seriousness of Damore's citations but added, "There are also grounds for questioning some of this research". Regarding Google's firing of Damore, Singer stated "it isn't necessary to decide which side is right, but only whether Damore's view is one that a Google employee should be permitted to express. I think it is."
A Harvard-Harris Poll survey showed that 55 percent of those polled said Google was wrong to fire Damore, including 61 percent of Republicans, 56 percent of independents and 50 percent of Democrats.
- Biological determinism
- Call-out culture
- Criticism of Google
- Gender disparity in computing
- Resistance to diversity efforts in organizations
- Sex differences in psychology
- Sexism in the technology industry
- Women in computing
- Women in STEM fields
- The NeuroGenderings Network
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