Gender diversity and free speech

Not evil, just wrong

Google had better ways of dealing with an outspoken engineer than immediately sacking him

THE talk in Silicon Valley just now is as likely to be about sex as software. Women in tech firms feel badly treated. And they are right: they rarely get the top jobs, they are sometimes paid less than men and many suffer unwanted sexual advances. Most of their male colleagues sympathise; at the same time some feel they cannot express unorthodox opinions on gender. And they are right, too: they can easily fall foul of written and unwritten rules, and face drastic consequences.


The charged atmospherehelps explain why “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber”, a memo by a young software engineer, James Damore, has caused such a stir. It says that the firm’s efforts to hire more women are biased. After circulating internally, it went viral. On August 7th Mr Damore was fired. To quote Sundar Pichai, Google’s boss, he advanced
“harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace”.


Mr Pichai had good reasons to sack Mr Damore. One is the content of the memo. It says many reasonable-sounding things: that “we all have biases” and that “honest discussion with those who disagree can highlight our blind spots”. But these are just camouflage before a stonking rhetorical “but”: the argument that innate differences, rather than sexism and discrimination, explain why women fare worse in the technology industry than men. “Neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stresstolerance)”, Mr Damore writes, “may contribute…to the lower number of women in high-stress jobs.”


Research has indeed shown some smallish group-level differences in personality and interests between the sexes. But drawing a line from this to women’s suitability for tech jobs is puerile. An unbiased eye would light on social factors rather than innate differences as the reason why only a fifth of computer engineers are women. Mr Damore claims women are “more interested in people than things” but, if this were true, they would in fact be better than men at the senior software-engineering jobs that involve managing teams. As for blind spots, although he repeatedly uses the words “discriminate” and “discrimination”, Mr Damore does so only to describe the unfairness to men of trying to hire more women.


Mr Pichai also has legal arguments on his side. The American constitution protects free speech in public, but within a company’s walls that right is limited by what bosses deem acceptable. After Mr Damore had suggested they are less qualified because of their sex, women at Google could have refused to work with him and taken legal action. Moreover, he may have known that his memo would be seized on in Alt-Right circles (it got top billing on Breitbart and far-right websites).


Still, there was a better response to Mr Damore than immediately giving him the sack. Other firms may limit their workers’ speech, but the largest search engine, with a mission to “organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible”, should hold itself to a higher standard. It should not be suspected of limiting the debate of  thorny subjects.不过,还是有比立马炒掉他更好的应对方式。其他公司也许会限制员工的言论,不过,谷歌既身为世界最大的搜索引擎,且肩负着“整合全球信息,供大众使用,使人人受益”的使命,就应以更高的标准来要求自己。它不应该有限制员工探讨敏感问题的嫌疑。(观点)

Speak up

It would have been better for Larry Page, Google’s co-founder and the boss of Alphabet, its holding company, to write a ringing, detailed rebuttal of Mr Damore’s argument. Google could have stood up for its female  employees while demonstrating the value of free speech. That might have led to the “honest discussion” Mr Damore claimed to want—and avoided the ersatz(代用品) one about his firing. It would have shown that his arguments are not taboo, but mostly foolish and ill-informed. And it would have countered his more defensible claim: that Google, and the Valley, so welcoming of gender diversity, are narrower-minded about unorthodox opinions.




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