My take on THAT Google memo

Well diversity has certainly hit the headlines over the past week, with a Google employee’s memo about women in the organization going viral, swiftly followed by the sacking of the author and the cancellation of various diversity events for safety reasons. Now that the dust is starting to settle, though, what should we make of the whole affair?

Importantly, this leak has firmly raised the issue of Google’s record on female pay. Let’s not forget that Google are currently under investigation by the US government for unequal pay and have been forced to hand over their confidential records for analysis. In the memo, James Damore talks openly about how men and women are not treated equally in the business, or in tech in general. While his reasoning for this and his suggestions about how to address it may be uncomfortable for many (myself very much included), he makes no attempt to deny discrimination exists. This is an important point, particularly when I turn my attention to the publishing industry where there remains a high degree of cynicism about the realities of gender discrimination, in stark contrast to the experiences women in publishing regularly share with me.

Many of the points Damore makes, though, speak to me of the issues around relying on diversity initiatives alone; clearly Google are investing here, but as Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev point out in their 2016 HBR article “Why Diversity Programs Fail”, putting in control mechanisms around diversity, as Google seem to have done, generally has the opposite of the desired effect, activating bias and making (primarily) white men feel disenfranchised and demeaned.

To me, this memo and the responses that have surrounded it just further convince me that businesses need to look to inclusion as the way to build better cultures. Diversity initiatives are counterproductive if they alienate staff; and there are enough battles to fight without creating more… We have to allow and encourage a range of voices in our organizations or we are just shifting from one type of discrimination to another. And let’s also remember, freedom of speech is always hardest to defend when people are saying things you dislike. But we should still respect, and fight for, their rights to say them. As Salman Rushdie, someone who knows a fair bit about saying the unpopular thing, puts it:

I would rather that too much was said than not enough was said. The default setting should be that expression is free and unregulated. This argument that it’s a bad thing to offend people has acquired a lot of tractionIf you make offendedness a reason for censorship, then nothing can be said.