Lessons (Not) Learned From Google’s Diversity Screed

Over the last couple of days, we’ve seen an interesting game played out at Google. An unnamed employee has said, in a 10-page memo that was widely circulated at the company, that the reason women are under-represented in IT is because they are psychologically different to men and, therefore, aren’t as well suited to the jobs in the tech sector as men.

Now, that man has been fired according to reports today. I want to discuss a few things before coming back to the specific situation at Google.

I’ve been a hiring (and firing) manager in the past. It’s not easy to balance all the different things you need when making a successful hire.

My rule of thumb, when hiring for a job, was simple. Look for what we don’t have and fill the gap. The biggest mistake hiring managers can make, in my opinion, is hiring in their own image. Empathy with interview candidates is important but often we “connect” with people who are similar to us. And that can be a problem.

So, when the author of Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber says the company has particular political biases and hires people that fit into that it’s easy to see how that can happen.

But the author of the memo is arguing from, what I think, is a flawed position.

Let’s take a simple measure like height. In general, men are taller than women. But there are plenty of men who are shorter than the average woman. If you plotted the height of men on a bell curve and the height of women on another bell curve, you’d probably find the 50th percentile (the peak of the bell) for each set of data would be apart. But there would be a lot of overlap between the two graphs.

I believe – and my life experience supports this – that this would be the case for almost any criterion you measured. Men and women are different.

But, I don’t think the bells are nearly as far apart as the Google employee would believe. And dealing in generalaties which back up his internal biases, which the Google employee did in his memo, is where the problem lies.

The gender gap is real. Recruiting managers are more likely to hire people based on embedded cultural biases. We see this in several different ways.

Job ads and position descriptions are often written in ways that, perhaps inadvertently, play into the cultural expectations of a specific gender. When I interviewed security expert Jane Frankland last year, she made specific mention of these issues.

And there have been countless examples of tests where women who change their names to suggest they are men are given interviews they are rejected for with exactly the same resumes.

On a recent panel I attended at a closed event one of the speakers, a trans-gender woman noted that she was given exactly contradictory advice on how to handle herself at a meeting by someone who did not recognise her prior to her transition.

This exemplifies how cultural biases do impact the way men and women are treated.

Are men and women different? Of course they are. Biologically and physiologically we’re different and that diversity is borne out in many ways. But the Google worker’s supposition that the lack of diversity is OK because women aren’t as capable as men is bullshit.

The echo chamber he refers to is one he is fully engaged in. It’s the echo chamber for the last few thousand years where men have, largely, ruled the world. And, as a middle-aged white guy, it’s a set of cultural biases I have to fight against constantly. I don’t profess to get it right every time. But the Google worker seems completely unaware that he is reinforcing the strereotypes he writes about.

Google’s CEO said in a statement “portions of the memo violate our Code of Conduct and cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace”.

In breaching the company’s guidelines, the employee clearly put himself at risk of losing his job. I wonder if that’s the best outcome. While it would be appropriate for him to be disciplined, this could have been a great opportunity for education.

Perhaps then, if he was able to see things from a different perspective he might have become an advocate for diversity rather than an opponent.

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