Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Google engineer's sacking has opened up the debate on women in computing

The 10-page memo about gender differences that got a Google engineer fired recently has generated a lot of discussion online, and by no means all of it is gender-specific.
Google tries hard to be a progressive company, and it has instituted a affirmative action (positive discrimination) initiative aimed at improving its gender and racial diversity, However, even with this recent push, currently just 20% of its worldwide technology employees (as opposed to admin staff) are female, about 7% were black, and 6% Hispanic, although this is still an improvement from the position just three years ago when these percentages were 17%, 1% and 2% respectively.
Software engineer James Damore's internal memo entitled "Google's Ideological Echo Chamber", which has been leaked and is now available online in full, criticizes these attempts by Google to circumvent what Damore sees as a natural order which is no fault of either men or women.The memo attempts to show, in a more or less scientific way, that gender differences in preferences, psychology and personality - in particular, the ideas that women are more open to feelings, are more interested in people than in things, have a tendency towards gregariousness rather than assertiveness, are more prone to neuroticism and anxiety, and are more concerned with work-life balance than status - are underpinned "in part" by biological differences rather than by socialized responses and institutional sexism. The memo, though, has been publicly slammed by Google's management, including CEO Sundar Pichai, and has even resulted in Damore's termination.
Various responses to the leaked memo and the sacking, such as this one, have concentrated on refuting the science he quotes (via Wikipedia), arguing that Damore cherry-picks his studies, misquotes them, or extracts false conclusions from them. Others, however, like this one by a female scientist in Globe and Mail, suggest that, actually, his science is spot on.
No doubt the debate will rage on, with little hope of a resolution. The various views on affirmative action policies are a whole other subject on which many people will never agree. But I suppose we at least owe Mr. Damore a debt of gratitude for instigating the conversation, and for putting it front and centre in the international media.
There again, Google may have overreacted and overreached itself by firing Damore, in a hasty knee-jerk response that may end up causing it more headaches than the original leaked memo. He was officially fired for "advancing harmful gender stereotypes", a phrase I would be surprised to find anywhere in Google's employee handbook. Apparently, Damore is considering taking legal action for wrongful dismissal, and he may well have a case.
Certainly, even if you disagree with the man, an internal memo espousing unpopular but legal political views is not a sacking offence in any corporate world I know.

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