By Prabhakar Mundkur, Chief Mentor at HGS Interactive
Who ever would have thought that diversity would rear its big ugly head, enough to shake up an entire organisation and even threaten its leadership? And that too drive a mammoth giant like Google into its biggest public relations crisis.
The author, James Damore, wrote the infamous memo on a long plane flight and posted it to an internal company message board. He might have done the wrong thing by going against the company’s code of conduct by propagating ‘harmful gender stereotypes’, but many experts say there might be some truth in the memo. The thrust of his memo was that the gender gap was a function of biology more than anything else. Silicon Valley is filled with engineers who believe women are less capable and interested in computer programming, and who use that belief to justify the outcomes of a culture that’s often hostile to women.
The strange thing is that even Artificial Intelligence that is taught the English language and fed the 940 billion words on the Internet will emerge with racial and gender biases unless corrective algorithms are fed into the young AI. Cognitive biases are so much a function of what has happened in the present and the past and there seems no reliable way to erase it. And unlike Artificial Intelligence, humans can’t be embedded with corrective algorithms. Which is a pity!
Although the equivalent of embedding humans with corrective algorithms seems to be diversity training at Google which trains people to think without bias. Google introduced training in 2013 to make employees aware of hidden biases, such as hiring a man over a more qualified woman because of an unconscious assumption the woman will be distracted by child care. Experts say that the fundamental challenge of diversity and bias training is that people don’t like to be told what to do and think. That’s why an instructor’s words can quickly backfire if they put the audience on the defensive. And in the case of James Damore it certainly seems to have backfired. An algorithm with a bug gone terribly wrong!
In an interview with Wall Street Journal he says ‘For many, including myself, working at Google is a major part of their identity, almost like a cult with its own leaders and saints, all believed to righteously uphold the sacred motto of “Don’t be evil.”
Echo chambers maintain themselves by creating a shared spirit and keeping discussion confined within certain limits. As Noam Chomsky once observed, “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.”
… In my document, I committed heresy against the Google creed by stating that not all disparities between men and women that we see in the world are the result of discriminatory treatment.”
The rather tragic thing is that James Damore says he wrote the memo because he wanted to improve things at Google rather than harm it. One could well believe that given the latest diversity statistics from Google which state that 80% of its tech workforce and 70% of its leaders are men. The main thesis of his memo is that women generally have a stronger interest in people rather than things and this may in part explain why women relatively prefer jobs in social and artistic areas. Of course Damore is speaking the language of averages. He explains this inherent biological difference may result in the overall under representation of women in tech.
Mysteriously the memo which was written a month ago seems to have become a problem only after it went viral, forcing the senior management to take action. Which raises an important question. For a whole month the memo did not seem to have contravened the code of conduct of the company. While diversity has always been a sensitive subject with companies, who would have imagined that it would one day become a crisis in a big mammoth company like Google and bring disrepute to the company, threatening the reputation of even its senior management. Of course diversity has been bobbing its ugly head recently. The Susan Fowler sexual harassment case meant 20 people got fired at Uber.
In the meantime, James Damore is infamously famous and has more media and publicity than he can handle and certainly more than anyone at Google.
Your Editor Concurs: Diversity makes for kinder societies