Simmering issues of diversity and gender discrimination in the tech industry were spotlighted this week when an internal memo penned by a Google engineer went viral, causing a public relations earthquake for the company. Although the 10-page “anti-diversity” memo was actually more nuanced than some reports gave it credit for, its thesis triggered a quick backlash. The engineer was fired in the tumult following what was perceived as a screed against diversity and inclusion efforts at the company.
In the memo, the engineer – who has since been outed as James Damore – acknowledges that both men and women experience bias in the technology workplace, but that “it’s far from the whole story. On average men and women biologically differ in many ways.” He presses his case by saying that women “prefer jobs in social or artistic areas” while “more men may like coding” and – though professing to reject stereotypes – refers to a “higher drive for status” among men and a female dislike for long hours and stressful work. The bottom line, according to Damore, is that Google should stop assuming that gender gaps mean sexism is at work.
So, how should Google have handled the controversy? The storm was a trial by fire for its recently hired head of diversity Danielle Brown, and the response was a little slow by internet standards. This was possibly because the memo itself had been circulating inside Google for some time, but on Saturday it was leaked by Motherboard. Initial reaction came in the form of internal memos that were shared on social media and quickly picked up by the mainstream press. Brown criticized the memo as advancing “incorrect assumptions about gender,” yet seemed to be trying to defend the internal debate on principle, while making it clear that the company did not support Damore’s view. Her email explained, “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. But that discourse needs to work alongside the principles of equal employment found in our Code of Conduct, policies, and anti-discrimination laws.”
It was a thoughtful response to the furor, and under other circumstances, it might have helped calm the debate, or at least move it in a constructive direction. But, as with the memo itself, nuance is lost amidst emotionally charged reactions shared furiously in 140-character tweets and posts. On Monday CEO Sundar Pichai told employees that the memo had violated company rules. Given the wording of the Pichai’s communication and the social environment, Damore’s days at Google were numbered. He was fired late Monday.
Sexism and gender discrimination in Silicon Valley has been a topic of debate – and litigation – for years. The subject is complicated and one can make the argument that internal debate, even dissension, is a healthy sign.
But Google can’t afford to be seen as defending views that challenge diversity. The US Department of Labor is investigating it for “systemic compensation disparities against women pretty much across the entire workforce.” Bottom line, Google had little choice but to let Damore go, even though it may suffer legal consequences from the firing.
Google enjoys a reasonably strong brand and corporate reputation. It leads a ranking of companies perceived as the most responsible by the Reputation Institute three years in a row. More importantly, it faces major antitrust issues outside the U.S. and regulatory burdens at home. Legal counsel will always trump reputation counsel if the two are at odds. In this case the specter of sex discrimination – along with other, even less manageable issues like privacy and anti-competitive practices – is the last thing Google needs. In fact, in discussions with PR colleagues, some even speculated that the company leaked the memo on purpose so that it could be seen as rejecting the thinking it espouses. I doubt that, but who knows?
What can communicators learn from the situation?The larger issues here will continue to be debated but there are some PR takeaways.
Prepare for leaks. When it comes to hot-button issues, you can expect internal communications to to be shared outside the company. It pays to be prepared.
Articulate a clear POV and stick to it. This is where Google was caught in a developing situation, because the memo leaked over the weekend and it attempted to navigate fast-moving internal and public reaction.
Act decisively. There will be disagreement on whether Damore should have been let go, but Google did the right thing in moving swiftly and articulating its motives for doing so.
I believe Google has made a true commitment to diversity and inclusion, but even if that commitment isn’t fully baked, it has been forced to choose a side. Now it must work hard to lead in the process. It’s the right thing for its workforce and its reputation. And with the government breathing down its neck, good PR is good business.