The case of the anti-diversity memo in Google: Courage or manipulation?

Publié le: 14 août 2017

Classé sous: Non classé

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The firing by Google of software engineer James Damore, who criticized the company’s diversity policies in an internal memo, since made public online, has stirred a controversy that continues to rage on the Internet. In fact, this issue was skillfully tinted politically by its initiator and then largely exploited by the American extreme right as well as by … Julian Assange.

The ten pages long memo is written in a typical engineering report style with bullets and diagrams, but it is otherwise a political pamphlet. Starting from a truism i.e . that there are biological differences between men and women, Damore develops a whole bunch of  far-fetched arguments to justify differences in wages and other job benefits between the male and the female  employees in the company. For example, his statement to the effect  that women can take less stress than men or that men prefer to take care of objects rather than people are presented as scientific truths, while those are only his impressions.

A missed opportunity

It is unfortunate that the biological differences issue was obscured by a somewhat irrelevant (in this case) debate on freedom of speech. Had the debate been raised from a more sensible angle, many interesting questions could have been discussed : For example, women who wish to have children, the majority of them, even today,  have no other choice than interrupting their careers during their pregnancies, usually during the period of their life during which they have the most energy and are best able to demonstrate their ability to assume important responsibilities. How can this element be factored in in terms of career compensation?

Besides, rather than trying to justify differences in wages, as Damore does, the real issue to be addressed could and should have been:

 »What affirmative action programs meant to address or at least lessen the problems of disparity in treatment between employees in private companies have a proven track record of providing fair, valid and lasting results ?  »

The Wikipedia article on this subject covers a much broader perspective and focuses not only on employment but also on education, housing, etc. It is nevertheless very instructive, as it reports in an unbiased fashion the advantages and disadvantages, as well as the results obtained with different methods used in the world. Of course, the debate can also be enriched with many other considerations, such as:

  • The optimal duration of the programs beyond which there is a risk of amplifying rather than lessening the problems observed, because the protected population adapts to the lower standards offered to them or because it becomes over-represented itself.
  • The projection in the future of existing trends. For example, today women are more numerous than men in terms of graduation rates in many disciplines, including law and medicine. Discrepancies in treatment are therefore likely to disappear naturally over the next twenty years. Introducing programs in these disciplines could therefore create the need in the future for « positive counter-discrimination » …
  • The natural sympathy of the general population towards certain minorities, a sine qua non condition for political acceptance of such programs, as well as the ways to maintain it. This problem is particularly evident in Europe where the recent large migratory flow has objectively generated xenophobic and even racist reactions, even with populations that were open to immigration beforehand.

Courage or strategy ? … The true colors start to appear

In treating an overly complex issue in such a superficial fashion, James Damore clearly took intellectual shortcuts that do not stand up to serious analysis. Indeed, it can be safely asserted that his paper would never have reached such a notoriety had he not worked for one of the most important multinationals in the world and, above all, had he not given his paper a political spin resonating with Donald Trump‘s style, himself known for his lack of intellectual rigor and his predilection for fake news.

By hiding behind supposed « scientific truths » and by preemptively accusing Google management of being left leaning and ideologically motivated, Damore justifies his prejudices relative to the supposedly superior capacity of men (preferably white), to perform technological work or assume leadership roles. In order to keep up appearances, he comes up with « suggestions » that would in no way solve the problems he raises.

His bad faith became nevertheless obvious once he was dismissed. In order present himself as a hero, he dared to compare the working conditions at Google, where the average salary of an engineer is 163,000 $ US, with unheard of benefits for 99.9% of the planet’s engineers, to the Soviet Gulag!

This statement insults not only engineers, but also the families of the millions of people who died in the Stalinist camps. It also insults the truly exploited workers who have tried to unionize Wal-Marts or McDonald’s and who have been financially ruined and/or practically banished from society in the process, without receiving in any way the sympathy and support enjoyed by Damore today.

Also, even if his comparison with the Soviet Gulag was preposterous, it had a purpose: Strengthen his image as a victim and confirm his initial premise that Google management is  left-leaning. This latter premise is all the more ridiculous as Google is one of the most powerful and aggressive multinationals on the planet. There are many examples of questionable practices Google uses in its business, including censorship as well as being involved in numerous lawsuits related to discrimination against some of its employees, including women.

It is now clear that Damore unspoken goal was to seek media attention so as to build political capital and  advance his career. However, it would be wrong to attribute his motivation to his misogyny. Damore is motivated mainly by his superiority complex and his  « me, myself and I » syndrome, so typical of social-climbers in today’s companies. These individuals are firmly convinced that the rules in place prevent them from obtaining the wage conditions and the status they think they deserve. Consequently, they argue that rules should be changed or not apply to them, so that they would be able to monopolize all budgets of their department or division to the detriment of their colleagues. In most cases, however, these individuals are not as competent as they think they are, are very bad team players and never accept to question themselves, preferring to accuse others for any unresolved issue under their responsibility. Ironically they are often rather well protected by the rules in place, as they would be quickly dismissed or earn considerably less if the rules were really challenged.

Google’s human resources management policies and the high-tech industry in North America

Legislating to set the hiring rules in the public sector is partially possible, but it is very difficult to prevent private companies, especially in North America, from practicing subtle forms of discrimination (negative or positive) on the basis of gender, but also of political opinions, sexual orientation or religion. The reason is simple: You can legislate all you want, the burden of proof in the courts is always on the shoulders of the complainant, who, unless he is a union member or succeeds in initiating a class action, does not have the financial means to fight against in court against a private company.

With this in mind, it is probably a good thing that companies have different hiring policies, as they partially compensate for each other. If all private companies had the same criteria for selection and management of human resources, a large part of the population would never work!

That being said the main mistake that Google management has made with James Damore is not having fired him but rather not performing relevant psychological tests when hiring him. Now the blunder cannot be corrected: the ball is definetely in the crisis management department.

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