Over the weekend, a firestorm ignited online after news about an internally distributed Google memo, entitled "Google's Ideological Echo Chamber," went public. Vice's Motherboard first reported news of what it called a 10-page "anti-diversity manifesto," and Gizmodo published the document in full.
The basic gist of the essay, written by one anonymous Googler, is this: The reasons there is not more gender diversity in tech is not because of unconscious biases, but rather because of biological differences between the sexes. Women, the author writes, "have a stronger interest in people rather than things," which leads to them preferring "jobs in social or artistic areas." They are also more agreeable, a trait that "leads to women generally having a harder time negotiating salary, asking for raises, speaking up, and leading." The Googler offers no research or data as backup for those claims, but he says his ideas have been supported by colleagues.
In response to the memo, Google's VP of Diversity, Integrity, and Governance, Danielle, Brown, sent a message to employees. In her note, published by Motherboard, Brown writes, "I found that it advanced incorrect assumptions about gender. I'm not going to link to it here as it's not a viewpoint that I or this company endorses, promotes, or encourages."
In the days since the memo went viral, many academics, reporters, and members of the tech community have attempted to unpack the document and speak to its larger implications. Their takes, as well as those of current and past Google employees on Twitter, are varied. Some claim the document is "anti-diversity," others argue it's not because it is accurate. Some say it is "long and tedious, with inept prose and dead manner" while others say it is "written calmly and reasonably well."
These opposing reactions are almost as telling as the memo itself, since they prove how challenging and complicated it is to tackle issues of sexism and discrimination within Silicon Valley. Though most major tech companies promote positive diversity programs, employees must be on board with those programs for them to be effective. While it might seem obvious that having more women and individuals of diverse backgrounds and ethnicities leads to a greater diversity of ideas and better products for the majority of people, this is clearly not a truth shared by all.
Without any research to back up its claims, the manifesto reads as a rant. As one Redditor points out, it's not unlike the kinds of dangerous, unsupported ideas that take off and are perpetuated in online forums.
In an Atlantic op-ed on the issue, Georgia Tech professor Ian Bogost makes an important point: "The Googler’s complaints assume that all is well in the world of computing technology." Yet the world of technology has been largely ruled by white men, making it hard to even imagine what other, more diverse ideas are possible. According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, women only made up 26% of the computing workforce in 2016. Only 5% of women in this workforce are Asian, and the numbers fall even lower for Hispanic and Black women.
Besides overlooking the lack of diversity across not only genders, but also races, the author seems to advance a very narrow view of what makes someone good at job in tech. In a Medium post, Yonatan Zunger, a former distinguished engineer on privacy at Google, writes that the skills the memo's author deems less important to engineering — "cooperation, collaboration, and empathy" — are in fact the most critical and advanced skills. It isn't all about being good with numbers.
"All of these traits which the manifesto described as 'female' are the core traits which make someone successful at engineering," Zunger writes.
Zunger's closing point is true for anyone who decides to dispense their beliefs to a larger community, whether that's over email or in an online forum: Think about the impact of your rant before you put it in writing.
"[T]he fact that you think this was 'all in the name of open discussion,' and don’t realize any of these deeper consequences, makes this worse, not better." Zunger writes.
The issue of sexism in Silicon Valley isn't going away anytime soon, and memos like this one shed light on just how ingrained and pervasive this problem is — and proves that simple solutions won't be enough.