Memo Sparks Firestorm at Google

By Jack Nicas and Yoree Koh Features Dow Jones Newswires

Google found itself under fire Tuesday, with critics saying the company squelched free speech by firing a male employee who wrote a divisive memo denouncing its diversity push, while others said his views showed that the company's diversity policies were needed.

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The company elaborated on its reasons for firing software engineer James Damore, saying he violated company policies banning harassment and discrimination by writing and distributing a lengthy memo that criticized the search giant's efforts to attract more women and minority engineers. Among other things, Mr. Damore, whose Facebook profile says he is 28, wrote that biological differences explain some of the gap between male and female tech workers and that the company's approach to diversity itself reflected biases.

Mr. Damore initially shared the memo in a Google Doc with a limited number of colleagues, and for several weeks it was passed around at the company under the radar of senior management, a Google spokesman said. Criticism of the memo gained steam internally on Friday and eventually spilled into public view with several employees denouncing it on Twitter and portions leaked to a tech news site.

Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai said in a Monday email to employees that the memo advanced "harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace," and that to suggest "colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK."

Mr. Damore argued in his memo that a liberal bias among employees and executives at Google made it difficult to openly discuss the company's approach to diversity. He told The Wall Street Journal in an email that he believed his termination was politically motivated. A Google spokesman responded by email: "He violated our Code of Conduct, period."

Mr. Damore on Tuesday updated a complaint made to the National Labor Relations Board a day earlier, although experts say he is likely to face obstacles in seeking legal recourse.

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Google, a unit of Alphabet Inc., has built its business on the tenets of free speech, with a search engine that enables a wide spectrum of voices to reach their audiences. The company was founded in 1998 with a mission statement to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."

But Google, like many tech companies, has also committed to diversifying its workforce from a staff that is 69% male, 56% white and 35% Asian.

Google executives -- including Mr. Pichai, who was in Africa on vacation with his family -- held several conference calls over the weekend to discuss potential action. Mr. Pichai cut short his vacation to return for a meeting with Google employees Thursday.

The internal discussion focused on "trying to balance what a Googler is free to say with what our code of conduct allows," a Google spokesman said. The company determined that suggesting "women can't be as successful in the same kind of jobs as men" violated its code of conduct and policies against harassment and discrimination.

Diversity experts say the company may have missed an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to a broad notion of diversity that includes people with different political points of view.

Terminating Mr. Damore "shuts down the possibly of dialogue," said Mary-Frances Winters, CEO of the Winters Group Inc., a diversity consulting firm. Ms. Winters said Google could have engaged Mr. Damore to learn more about his views and try to point out the flaws in his argument. "This exacerbates polarization."

Diversity professionals walk a fine line, promoting efforts to present women and minorities with more opportunity in the workplace, while trying not to alienate white men.

Bill Proudman, CEO of White Men As Full Diversity Partners, said Google's swift action to terminate Mr. Damore was the right thing to do. "The downside is that, however well intended the decision, people who are not in the mainstream flow of politics at the company may now feel they're going to lose their livelihood if they speak up," Mr. Proudman added.

In his memo, Mr. Damore argued that women are generally more interested in "people rather than things, relative to men," which in part explains "why women relatively prefer jobs in social or artistic areas. More men may like coding." He added that women are also generally more "cooperative" than men, hurting their ability to negotiate, and that they are more prone to anxiety and seek more work-life balance, leading to fewer women in high-stress, high-paying jobs.

Some of Mr. Damore's assertions are supported by academic research. But his more controversial statements that attempt to connect biological attributes to workplace performance have been met with academic skepticism. "When it comes to abilities, attitudes, and actions, sex differences are few and small," said Adam Grant, a professor of psychology and management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, in a blog post published Monday.

Mr. Damore's memo is the latest in a string of incidents that have drawn attention to the treatment of women in tech. Earlier this year, a former software engineer at Uber Technologies Inc. -- a woman -- published a blog post alleging sexual harassment and chauvinistic attitudes that ultimately led to the resignation of CEO Travis Kalanick.

More recently, two prominent male venture capitalists -- Justin Caldbeck of Binary Capital and Dave McClure of 500 Startups -- have resigned after complaints over their past treatment of women surfaced. Messrs. Caldbeck and McClure declined to comment.

Google executives were of the opinion that if the memo had singled out a racial group rather than women, Mr. Damore's firing would be more widely supported, the Google spokesman said. "We wouldn't even be having this discussion."

In recent years, tech companies including Facebook Inc. and Pinterest Inc. have implemented diversity initiatives like the Rooney Rule, which requires hiring managers include at least one candidate from an underrepresented background when filling an open position, to ensure women and minorities get a fairer shot at promotion. Many companies have also required managers take unconscious-bias training, to help them recognize their prejudices.

Mr. Damore in his memo called on Google to eliminate mandatory bias training for employees who help decide on promotions for colleagues because its effect is hard to measure and "has the potential for overcorrecting or backlash."

Kim Scott, a former Google executive who worked at the company from 2004 to 2010, said the need for broadening diversity to include political conservatives is especially strong in the tech industry. "Silicon Valley has such a predominant liberal culture that it's difficult to have a different point of view," Ms. Scott said. "People will unfriend you. They don't want to hear it."

John Simons and Georgia Wells contributed to this article.

Write to Jack Nicas at and Yoree Koh at

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 09, 2017 00:16 ET (04:16 GMT)