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Google Fires Employee Who Ignites sexism and free speech Controversy

SILICON VALLEY’S leading firms celebrate disruption, but not disruptive employees. Google has found itself at the centre of controversy after an anonymous software engineer, later revealed to be a young Harvard graduate called James Damore, published a ten-page memo on two internal company networks explaining why there are so few women in the upper echelons of the technology industry.


Instead of sexism, he pointed to “biological” factors, such as women’s supposedly greater interest in people and their predisposition to anxiety and stress at work. In promoting gender diversity, he charged, Google silences those people whose political views differ from California’s liberal mainstream.


Mr Damore’s insinuation that the small portion of Google’s workforce that is both female and works in technology-related roles (see chart) may be unsuited for the work sparked an uproar inside and outside the company. Google was in a bind. It champions free expression and access to information, so many wondered how it would handle an employee who had complained that Silicon Valley was intolerant of different political viewpoints.

The answer came on August 7th, when Google sacked him. Sundar Pichai, its boss, said that parts of Mr Damore’s memo violated its code of conduct and made its work environment hostile for women. Acting swiftly was important for the firm, which has been under investigation by the Department of Labour since April for discriminating against women by allegedly underpaying them by comparison with men.

Men still occupy four-fifths of Google’s technology-related roles, and 91% of its employees are either white or Asian. The firm probably felt a need to reassure its female employees and workers from ethnic and sexual-minority groups that it takes diversity seriously. In recent months Silicon Valley has been beset with proven cases of sexism against women at work and sexual harassment of female employees. So far it has been Uber, a ride-hailing firm with a particularly toxic culture of sexual harassment, that has come off worst: in recent months it has lost most of its executive ranks, including its boss, Travis Kalanick.

Even had Google preferred to dress down rather than dismiss Mr Damore, in practice it would have been difficult to keep him. Women and others could have complained of discomfort working alongside him or reporting to him, and could have made claims against Google for employing someone disrespectful of colleagues and of the firm’s values.

Yet to dismiss Mr Damore’s memo entirely is to overlook Silicon Valley’s character and, perhaps, ways in which it might be changed. Most techies there consider him a black sheep, but he expressed ideas that some male computer-programmers think even if they never utter them aloud. “I would be hard-pressed to name a person at Google who would disagree with 100% of what he wrote,” says one female Googler. For the boss of a prominent tech startup, Google’s sacking of him was chiefly for public consumption. “This isn’t a question of legality or policy. This is a question of virtue-signalling,” he says, reflecting the view of many in the Valley.

And although many of the memo’s assertions were risible, such as the idea that women are not coders because they are less intrigued by “things” than men are, others made more sense. One is that diversity initiatives could be more transparent. Today firms publish annual numbers about the composition of their workforce, but reveal little else. Companies across all industries could try harder to quantify how their initiatives are faring.

Mr Damore’s broad argument, that the Valley is fairly tolerant of racial and gender diversity but intolerant of diversity of opinion, was his most powerful. In the liberal tech industry, vocal conservatives are as scarce and unpopular as feature phones. When Peter Thiel, a prominent venture capitalist, backed Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, he was condemned by many of his peers. Some say Mr Thiel’s politics will affect his firm, because some entrepreneurs do not want to be associated with his views and are unwilling to accept investment from his fund. A similar wind of intolerance is sweeping America’s liberal universities, where conservative speakers are facing protests and seeing their speeches cancelled.

Mr Damore has said he may sue Google for infringing his right to free speech, although this may not go far. Americans’ right to free speech is protected by the constitution but does not exist legally at work, though many do not understand the distinction. In California, like most states in America, people are employees “at will”, so they can be rapidly dismissed if their conduct breaches company policies.

He will certainly be lionised by supporters. The Alt-Right movement in America is celebrating his frankness. Some members have started a crowdfunded campaign to support him, should he sue Google and fail. Some wonder if the memo’s timing—published in the dog-days of summer when it was likely to get most attention—was carefully chosen. Before Mr Damore was fired he filed a complaint with America’s National Labour Relations Board, which few employees would think to do without early legal advice, says Pamela Sayad, an employment lawyer.

The sacking of Mr Damore may fade from the news, but the debate about gender in technology is likely only to intensify. Those under fire for their treatment of women include not only Uber but several venture-capital firms, accused of inculcating the male-dominated cultures of the young companies they finance. The other effect will be to deepen debate about freedom of expression at work. Google may have acted wisely for its female employees and for its public image. But it has not satisfactorily answered the question of how those who express controversial opinions at work should be handled. Many people will note that a company that is known for its bold, out-of-the-box thinking chose to live and die by its employee manual.





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