Google’s firing of diversity critic fuels backlash

Mark Bergen and Ellen Huet
Bloomberg News

Google triggered a social-media backlash with the firing of an employee who had blasted the company’s diversity policies, fueling tension over an issue roiling Silicon Valley.

The dismissal of James Damore, a Google engineer, came after he wrote a 10-page manifesto criticizing what he deemed a left-leaning culture at Alphabet Inc.’s web division that he said ignores the differences between the sexes.

In an email confirming his firing, Damore said he’s “currently exploring all possible legal remedies.”

Some right-wing websites lionized Damore and accused the company of censoring conservative views.

Firing the engineer could be seen as confirming some of the claims in the memo itself that the company’s culture makes no room for dissenting political opinions. That outcome could galvanize any backlash against Alphabet’s ongoing efforts to make its workforce more diverse.

The imbroglio at Google is the latest in a long string of incidents concerning gender bias and diversity in the tech enclave.

Uber Technologies Inc. Chief Executive Officer Travis Kalanick lost his job in June amid scandals over sexual harassment, discrimination and an aggressive culture.

Ellen Pao’s gender-discrimination lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in 2015 also brought the issue to light, and more women are speaking up to say they’ve been sidelined in the male-dominated industry, especially in engineering roles.

Earlier on Monday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai sent a note to employees that said portions of the memo “violate our Code of Conduct and cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.” But he didn’t say if the company was taking action against the employee.

A Google representative, asked about the dismissal, referred to Pichai’s memo. The company’s shares closed on Monday, essentially unchanged.

Damore’s memorandum argued that biological differences play a role in the shortage of women in tech and leadership positions. It circulated widely inside the company and became public over the weekend, causing a furor that amplified the pressure on Google executives to take a more definitive stand.

After the controversy swelled, Danielle Brown, Google’s new vice president for diversity, integrity and governance, sent a statement to staff condemning Damore’s views and reaffirmed the company’s stance on diversity.

In internal discussion boards, multiple employees said they supported firing the author, and some said they would not choose to work with him, according to postings viewed by Bloomberg News.

“We are unequivocal in our belief that diversity and inclusion are critical to our success as a company,” Brown said in the statement. “We’ll continue to stand for that and be committed to it for the long haul.”

The memo and surrounding debate comes as Google fends off a lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Labor alleging the company systemically discriminates against women.

Google has denied the charges, arguing that it doesn’t have a gender gap in pay, but has declined to share full salary information with the government.

According to the company’s most recent demographic report, 69 percent of its workforce and 80 percent of its technical staff are male.

Following the memo’s publication, multiple executives shared an article from a senior engineer who recently left the company, Yonatan Zunger.

In the blog post, Zunger said that based on the context of the memo, he determined that he would “not in good conscience” assign any employees to work with its author. “You have just created a textbook hostile workplace environment,” he wrote.

He also said in an email, “Could you imagine having to work with someone who had just publicly questioned your basic competency to do your job?”

Reaction to Damore’s firing in conservative circles was swift and harsh. One meme doing the rounds online reworked Google’s famous logo to read “Goolag,” a reference to Soviet-era forced-labor camps.

Breitbart accompanied a news article of his dismissal with a photograph of a woman wearing a gag with the word “silenced” written on it.

Eric Weinstein, who runs Peter Thiel’s investment firm, tweeted that Google should stop teaching girls that their “path to financial freedom lies not in coding but in complaining to HR.”

The subject of Google’s ideological bent came up at the most recent shareholder meeting, in June. A shareholder asked executives whether conservatives would feel welcome at the company. Executives disagreed with the idea that anyone wouldn’t.

“The company was founded under the principles of freedom of expression, diversity, inclusiveness and science-based thinking,” Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt said at the time.

“You’ll also find that all of the other companies in our industry agree with us.”