Contentious Memo Strikes Nerve Inside Google and Out

SAN FRANCISCO — After leaving Harvard’s doctorate program in systems biology to join Google as a software engineer in 2013, James Damore joked on his Facebook page that he knew he had made the right move as he enjoyed a morning smoothie with oats. It was the type of workplace perk that is standard for Google employees.

That initial assessment of Google seemed far removed from the contentious memo written by the 28-year-old Mr. Damore last week that has enraged advocates of greater diversity in the technology industry. The memo has also served as a rallying cry for conservatives and the alt-right who view Google — and Silicon Valley — as a bastion of groupthink where people with different opinions are shamed into silence.

The memo was originally posted on an internal mailing list and was shared widely inside the company and throughout Silicon Valley. It struck a nerve and was harshly criticized inside a company and an entire industry struggling to explain why women are underrepresented in key engineering ranks and are often underpaid when compared with their male peers.

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In a short email exchange on Monday after his firing, Mr. Damore, who was a senior software engineer in Google’s search division, said he had not expected this type of reaction when he shared his missive last week.

“As far as I know, I have a legal right to express my concerns about the terms and conditions of my working environment and to bring up potentially illegal behavior, which is what my document does,” he said. Mr. Damore said he would probably take legal action against the company.

Like many new hires at Google, Mr. Damore boasted an impressive academic background. A competitive player of chess and computer strategy video games, he studied molecular and cellular biology at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, according to an online résumé. He conducted research in computational biology at Harvard, Princeton and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before joining a Ph.D. program at Harvard. He dropped out before completing the program.

In a footnote for his memo, Mr. Damore said he considered himself a “classical liberal,” an ideology associated with advocacy of free market economics and libertarianism.

“Despite what the public response seems to have been, I’ve gotten many personal messages from fellow Googlers expressing their gratitude for bringing up those very important issues which they agree with but would never have the courage to say or defend because of our shaming culture and the possibility of getting fired,” Mr. Damore wrote in an addendum to his original memo. “This needs to change.”

Others outside the company came to Mr. Damore’s defense. Eric Weinstein, a managing director at Thiel Capital, an investment firm run by Peter Thiel, a billionaire and supporter of President Trump, said Google was sending the wrong message to women.

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“It’s insidious and it’s all around the culture,” Ms. Smith said in an interview with Bloomberg Television.

The flap over Mr. Damore’s criticism of Google’s diversity efforts comes as the company has tangled with the Labor Department over its pay practices. The department has not charged Google with any wrongdoing, but a department official said there was evidence that the company systematically paid women less than men. Google denies this is the case.

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Mr. Damore’s comments also raised another issue around Google’s peer-review system. Employees at the company are expected to judge their colleague’s work in a peer-review process that is essential to deciding whether someone gets promoted. By expressing certain beliefs — such as that women are more prone to anxiety — the concern was that he could no longer be impartial in judging female co-workers.

For a company steeped in a rich history of encouraging unconventional thinking, the problem was not that he expressed an unpopular opinion, but a disrespectful one, according to Yonatan Zunger, who left Google last week after 14 years at the company to join a start-up.

“We have a long history of disagreement over everything from technical issues to policy issues to the most mundane aspects of building management, and over all, that has been tremendously valuable,” Mr. Zunger said in an email. “The problem here was that this was disrespectful disagreement — and there’s really no respectful way to say, ‘I think you and people like you aren’t as qualified to do your job as people like me.”

Wesley Chan, a venture capitalist at Felicis Ventures and an early Google employee who left the company in 2014, said Google had no choice but to fire Mr. Damore.

“It’s not about free discourse,” said Mr. Chan. “It’s about advancing a fringe viewpoint which is hurtful to a large population of the company.”

The legal argument for Mr. Damore’s dismissal is more complicated. On one hand, there may be a way to argue that the memo and its recommendations — such as “stop alienating conservatives” — constitute a “concerted activity” to aid and protect his fellow workers, which may be protected under federal labor law. However, Google can argue that his memo created a hostile workplace for women.

“There’s no free speech in the private sector workplace,” said Katherine Stone, a labor and employment law professor at University of California, Los Angeles. “Clearly, the company was concerned that he was making the environment difficult for people to do their jobs.”

 

August 09, 2017

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