A recently fired Google employee sparked controversy at the beginning of August by sharing a memo with all of his coworkers regarding women’s biology and the workplace, leading to arguments about censorship versus hostile work environments. Written by James Damore, a former Google engineer, the ten page document, posted on a Google discussion board meant for the entirety of Google’s workforce, makes connections between workplace diversity initiatives, the gender gap in technological jobs, and biology.
Damore is entitled to his own opinions on biology’s role in tech, although the researchers Damore cited in his memo happen to disagree with these opinions, but posting this memo publicly where his fellow Google employees are forced to see it sends the message that women are inferior and unwelcome. He writes of the psychological harm that may occur from silencing conservative opinions, but fails to consider the psychological harm that is inflicted upon diverse employees when they are told they don’t belong.
The document first circulated within Google, and soon after was publicized on the internet, leading to his firing. While Damore’s supporters claim his termination promotes censorship and violates his right to free speech, his opposition claims he created a hostile work environment.
“The distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership,” Damore writes. On the company’s diversity initiatives, he doesn’t believe Google “should do arbitrary social engineering of tech just to make it appealing to equal portions of both men and women.”
His generalized comments about women’s personality traits, which Damore credits for the lack of women in tech and leadership, constitute harassment by targeting others based on their gender. While Damore cites some evidence to corroborate his claims that women tend to be more cooperative, agreeable, anxious, and people-oriented, these same researchers cited in the memo have gone on to disagree with Damore, saying the evidence is weak, ambiguous, and cannot be generalized.
The Google memo controversy exemplifies a general ignorance over what exactly constitutes sexual harassment, which is defined under California law as “harassment because of [one’s] sex, race, or any other category covered under the law.” It is estimated between 40 and 70% of women have experienced workplace sexual harassment, and 62% of women who are been sexually harassed in the workplace take no action against their harasser(s).
“According to data compiled by Equal Rights Advocates … 90 to 95% of sexually harassed women suffer from some debilitating stress reaction, including anxiety, depression, headaches, sleep disorders, weight loss or gain, nausea, lowered self-esteem and sexual dysfunction. The consequences to working women as a group are no less serious,” the Human Rights Library writes. Maybe the heightened anxiety Damore claims women experience has more to do with their unwelcoming work environments rather than biology.
Supporters of Damore claim his First Amendment right to free speech was violated when he was fired. In reality, his First Amendment right was not infringed upon because he publicly shared the memo with the entirety of Google in a Google discussion board. Had Damore posted this memo on a platform unrelated to Google, maybe this argument would hold. However, he made the choice to force the document upon his coworkers by posting it in a work related space where they would have to see it. This action clearly violated Google’s Code of Conduct.
Google’s decision to fire Damore was perfectly valid, as his memo violated their Code of Conduct, which reads, “We are committed to a supportive work environment, where employees have the opportunity to reach their fullest potential. Googlers are expected to do their utmost to create a workplace culture that is free of harassment, intimidation, bias, and unlawful discrimination.” The public memo clearly violated a Google policy.
If Damore had concerns about the nature of diversity initiatives, the Code of Conduct states he should have spoken to someone in the company directly, but he instead chose to circulate these concerns amongst the entire Google workforce. “If you have a question or concern … You can contact your manager, your Human Resources representative, or Ethics & Compliance … if you believe a violation of law has occurred, you can always raise that through the Ethics & Compliance helpline or with a government agency.”
Damore’s public memo may have created a hostile work environment at Google, where diversity is already a problem. According to their diversity page, women in Google’s technological jobs make up a mere 20% of the workforce, and only 25% of Google’s leaders are women. Had Google not fired Damore, the Silicon Valley tech company would have left themselves liable to employee lawsuits.
California law states it is illegal “for an employer, labor organization, employment agency, apprenticeship training program, or any training program leading to employment, to fail to take all reasonable steps necessary to prevent discrimination and harassment from occurring.”
Damore’s manifesto was not opening up “an honest conversation,” but was rather creating a platform where women’s employment could be criticized and rejected. Firing Damore was not only legally required by California state law, but was also an enforcement of a violation of Google’s ethics policy.
While supporters would like to believe that Damore was censored by his employer, Damore did not merely make a statement to a coworker or two. He made the choice to write a ten page manifesto and post it publicly in a forum meant for Google employees. Damore’s choice to post the memo changed his views from his own opinion to a workplace sexual harassment issue. Damore made his views Google’s business and Google’s problem, and it was in Google’s best interest to fire him.