Google employee’s leaked anti-diversity memo sparks evaluation of tech culture

The NewsHour Weekend’s Hari Sreenivasan spoke with Erica Joy Baker of Project Include about the memo.

An internal memo criticizing Google’s attempts to promote women in engineering was made public on Saturday, sparking a debate within the tech community about the values it defends. In the memo, a 10-page manifesto first reported on by Motherboard and published in full by Gizmodo, an unnamed employee argued that Google’s diversity efforts are doomed to fail due to biological differences between genders that render women less suited to engineering.

In the memo, titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” the author said that the company’s push for gender diversity should be swapped for “ideological diversity.”

The document, which ricocheted across the internet over the weekend, was swiftly denounced by some Google employees who expressed support for their female colleagues and frustration with the realities of working in tech — a sector not removed from the polarized politics of the nation.

Some within the company defended the memo, writing in an internal thread that it “took serious guts to post that,” Motherboard reported. One Google employee wrote, “We need more people standing up against the insanity. Otherwise ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ which is essentially a pipeline from Women’s and African Studies into Google, will ruin the company.”

In response, Danielle Brown, Google’s newly-named vice president of diversity, integrity, and governance, wrote in a statement that the memo’s contents do not represent values that Google “endorses, promotes or encourages.”

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

Brown went on to defend the open expression of beliefs.

“Part of building an open, inclusive environment means fostering a culture in which those with alternative views, including different political views, feel safe sharing their opinions,” she said, before drawing a line at views that conflict with equal employment and anti-discrimination laws.

Google was one of the first companies to make their workforce diversity data public. Among workers in tech roles, the company remains 80 percent male and majority white.

In April, the U.S. Department of Labor found “systemic compensation disparities” between men and women throughout the company, whose parent company, Alphabet, employs more than 60,000 people worldwide.

Yonatun Zunger, who was a Distinguished Engineer at Google until about one week ago, wrote in a Medium post that the memo’s author, besides presenting an unsubstantiated case for the biological differences between genders, misunderstands what it means to be an engineer.

“Essentially, engineering is all about cooperation, collaboration, and empathy for both your colleagues and your customers … All of these traits which the manifesto described as ‘female’ are the core traits which make someone successful at engineering,” he wrote.

Zunger went on to lambast the author for disregarding the human costs of publishing his memo.

“You just put out a manifesto inside the company arguing that some large fraction of your colleagues are at root not good enough to do their jobs, and that they’re only being kept in their jobs because of some political ideas,” he wrote.

Erica Joy Baker, a former Google employee and a founder of Project Include, an initiative that works to make tech companies more diverse, called the memo “bigotry dressed up as science” and said that she worries it will contribute to hostility toward women at Google.

In an interview with the PBS NewsHour Weekend, Joy said she was troubled by the level of open disregard for diversity initiatives that the memo reveals. Though she faced instances of racism and sexism while at Google, she said she would not have expected any of her former coworkers to feel secure enough to broadly share a manifesto like this one.

What’s now unfolding in plain view at Google, she said, mirrors conversations being had on far-right online forums.

“It’s the same sort of stuff that you see on alt-right websites … but distilled into an engineer-y, scientific format to make it seem like it’s well researched,” she said.

Joy urged tech leaders to look closely at the work environments that allow employees to “feel safe and protected now to go ahead and say that women can’t be engineers.”

This memo, she said, speaks to the culture at Google in particular, but of tech at large. “It’s an isolated incident, but I feel like it’s a canary in a coal mine,” she said.