In one of those rare moments of serendipity, I happened to be spending the week in Silicon Valley when the firestorm over the Google software engineer flared up, which meant I had a front row seat to the culture wars ravaging our country. That statement, in no way, is intended as hyperbole.
In case you missed the brouhaha, an internal memo written by James Damore critiqued the tech behemoth’s diversity efforts. When the 10-page document was made public, it predictably provoked some angry reactions. It was blasted as anti-woman, sexist and a “screed against diversity.” But others said the Google manifesto pointed to “real” gender differences that diversity and inclusion efforts refuse to accept.
Last week Damore was fired for violating Google’s code of conduct. He took to YouTube (owned by Google, by the way) to state his case, and — surprise, surprise — he reportedly was offered jobs by such entities as Julian Assange of WikiLeaks fame and Breitbart, the far right news and commentary website. I bet he’ll sign a six-figure deal to write a book about his experience. After all, we’re a society where the currency of fame is controversy not substance, where social capital is not earned with the labor of many industrious years but a brief and spectacular blowout.
Oh, but where to begin with Damore? The poor pup may end up with a better-paying job or 15 minutes of fame, but in the end I suspect he — and the rest of us — will have no intellectual growth to show for this fiasco.
First, let me state that this document is actually more nuanced than what has been reported, and it’s a shame that has been lost in the conflagration. Even as it used faulty logic to arrive at its conclusions, it was civil; hardly a call to revolution. Look up the manifesto online and judge for yourself. Damore brings up points that should be debated (and debunked, as necessary), not tucked in like a jack-in-the-box to pop up at some other time. When someone perpetuates stereotypes, they are best exposed quickly.
Silence rarely gets the intended result. I doubt Damore’s firing will change that or influence the debate in a positive way. Since time immemorial people who think themselves superior or more competent because of their sex (or race or ethnicity) like to use “facts” and “logic” to support their opinions. “Hidden Figures,” the excellent movie about NASA’s black female mathematicians, touches on this in a poignant way.
Unfortunately, we can blame ourselves for these conscious and unconscious biases. Stereotyping starts at home and school. It comes in the form of a simple remark or the toys we buy or the nudging of girls into the liberal arts. This may explain why, in 2013, women only earned about 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees in physics, 16 percent of computer degrees, and 18 percent of engineering degrees. Naturally there are fewer women in tech, an industry accused of sexism and discrimination.
In matters of gender differences, as well as any discussion on nurture over nature, our debate tends to go to extremes. It’s either pink or blue, with little shading in between. Reality is a bit more complicated, though. There is so much we don’t know and too much we pretend to know.
Google had every right to fire Damore. Yes, for his ignorance of company policy but, more importantly, for his witless inexperience with the basic tenets of successful human interaction. In an industry where collaboration is essential, can you imagine a Google manager assigning a woman or a minority employee to work with Damore, who claims some of his colleagues are less biologically suited?
In the end, it comes to this: When you work for a company you must abide by their code of contact, their dress code, their philosophy. And their uniformity of thought, too. In a private workplace, your rights, including speech, are limited. An employer can read your work email, fire you at will (in most states), and force you to work long hours. It’s not a democracy. The Man, in a sense, owns you.
It’s sadly as simple as that.