Unspoken Bias: The Google Memo Fiasco

If you have paid any attention to the news lately, you’ve probably seen something about the Google Memo and the controversy that it stirred up. For those unfamiliar with the situation, now former Google engineer, James Damore, sent out a company-wide memo detailing his views on gender disparities in different professions, the biological reasoning behind these, unconscious biases that people hold and how companies, like Google, should move forward in their diversity and inclusion efforts.

While some believe that his intentions were decent and that he just wanted to start a conversation about diversity and how we can improve our efforts, the method that he chose and the actual points that he was making are what caused the outrage.

Genetic Differences  

There are genetic differences between men and women. On that point he isn’t wrong. But that being the reasoning for women not being able to hold leadership positions or do as well in the workplace is absurd. We recently published a blog on how these perceived differences could cause women to be treated differently in interviews and on the job. The same confidence that we see in a man can be seen as being too aggressive in a woman. This societal bias has nothing to do with genetics, but our expectations of what a man and a woman should be.

An article from Vox states one of the reasons that there was a lot of anger around this topic is that “the manifesto’s sleight-of-hand delineation between “women, on average” and the actual living, breathing women who have had to work alongside this guy failed to reassure many of those women — and failed to reassure me. That’s because the manifesto’s author overestimated the extent to which women are willing to be turned against their own gender.

Speaking for myself, it doesn’t matter to me how soothingly a man coos that I’m not like most women, when those coos are accompanied by misogyny against most women. I am a woman. I do not stop being one during the parts of the day when I am practicing my craft. There can be no realistic chance of individual comfort for me in an environment where others in my demographic categories (or, really, any protected demographic categories) are subjected to skepticism and condescension.”

The tone of the memo is that of 50, 60 years ago where misogyny and condescension of women was more accepted in the workplace. Women were secretaries, while men were the CEOs, leading the company. Except times have changed drastically since then. There is a really interesting article on World Economic Forum that shows a visual representation of the changes in the workplace based on gender. It shows how we are slowly closing the gap between men and women and for many industries making an effort to have equal representation. There are several industries, like the tech industry, that have a long way to go, but progress has been made. But this memo seems to want to speak to the past as if it was the present.

Cultural Biases

There is also the issue of unconscious and implicit biases within a company and in our society. According to the CNN/Kaiser poll, “a majority of whites (69%) say the people they live around are mostly of the same race as them, while Hispanics predominantly say they live around people of other races (59%). Blacks are split, with 51% saying they live around people of other races and 41% saying they live around mostly other black people.”

It is natural to want to be around similar people. Studies have shown that we are drawn to people that look, think, and act more like us. But it also creates a bias that we assume the people that we live around, and the people that we spend time with, are more suited to do certain jobs or hold positions of leadership than those that we are unfamiliar with. This unconscious bias is one of the major issues facing diversity and inclusion efforts today. But similarly biases that we recognize and accept are just as, if not more, dangerous.

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Tolerance.org says, “if people are aware of their hidden biases, they can monitor and attempt to ameliorate hidden attitudes before they are expressed through behavior. This compensation can include attention to language, body language and to the stigmatization felt by target groups.

Common sense and research evidence also suggest that a change in behavior can modify beliefs and attitudes. It would seem logical that a conscious decision to be egalitarian might lead one to widen one’s circle of friends and knowledge of other groups. Such efforts may, over time, reduce the strength of unconscious biases.”

Starting The Conversation

The silver lining in this whole situation is that it started a conversation. Before these ideas and beliefs were just held by people in the company, often in leadership. Now we are beginning to open up and talk about it.

Bloomberg states, “And yet, you still have to ask whether shamestorming Damore and getting him sacked was really the best way to convince him — or anyone else — that he’s mistaken. Did anyone’s understanding of the complex quandaries of gender diversity advance? If there were guys at Google wondering whether the women around them really deserved their jobs, did anyone wake up the morning after Damore’s firing with the revelation: “Good God, how could I have been so blind?” No, I suspect those guys are now thinking: “You see? Women can’t handle math or logic.”

The mob reaction did prove that women indeed have some power in tech. But the power to fire people is not why most people get into engineering. Good engineers want to make things. The conversation around Damore’s memo hasn’t made the world a better place, as they say in Silicon Valley. It has just made a lot of people angry.”

An article on Inside Higher Ed says, “Solutions to discrimination against women and minorities are not necessarily simple or swift. Pierrakos pointed out structural and cultural norms at the root of companies and institutions often make real change difficult.

[Change] starts with conversations to unite around common values, and then it has to be continuously drawn out in every aspect of that organization, and in everyday operations.”

This means instead of waiting until someone sends out a company wide memo, we need to be having these conversations daily. Changing the culture in the company and in our society takes time and can’t be done through emails or memos that spark anger and frustration in others. We need to sit down 1-on-1 with people and really work to understanding each other. Only then can we begin to change the culture.

The reality for our organizations is that many other people certainly hold similar views and this is certainly the case for those in leadership positions as well. We have spoken often before about how diversity professionals must not take on the role of the PC police. In fact, it’s our job to get people to open up about their real beliefs so that we can initiate dialogue.

We want to be building trust and engaging with our co-workers, so that these attitudes and beliefs are able to be addressed in an appropriate manner, of which posting to a company-wide intranet certainly isn’t one. By creating safe spaces for employees to voice opinions, we are given an opportunity to build a relationship by listening with respect (even though this may be hard to do), and then work to create a change of mindset.

Unspoken bias may be the next great focus for D&I professionals, even more so than unconscious bias. We must work hard to uncover it in our workplaces and change its trajectory so that bias does not simply end up hiding underground. We always complain about diversity and inclusion often being more about optics than action. This is a reason why. So let’s change that.

The Society for Diversity is the largest organization for diversity and inclusion in the US. With members in 43 states, The Society for Diversity represents a highly specialized association of Fortune 500, nonprofit, government and education professionals throughout the U.S. The Society for Diversity is also the parent company of the Institute for Diversity Certification (IDC), which designates qualification credentials to diversity experts through their professional diversity certification program. By teaching diversity professionals and executives how to drive real-world results, the IDC helps individuals advance their careers as well as have a greater overall impact on diversity & inclusion within their organizations. Together, we can standardize and elevate the field. 

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