Disappointed with a corporate culture that provides special opportunities and programming for some select groups of people, James Damore, an engineer who, until recently, was employed by Google, sent around a memo expressing his concerns - and providing some suggestions on how they might be addressed. In short, his ideas were apparently not sufficiently aligned with the dominant political views held by the corporation writ large. And he was, as a result, fired. Yes, this is a true story - in the United States in 2017.
As someone who has chaired a university’s free speech task force, I have worked closely on the broader issues connected with this kind of case. This said, I have to say that I still find myself shaking my head whenever I learn of a new case like this one. When it comes to truly embracing diversity, we have a long way to go.
Intellectual Diversity is a Form of Diversity
For the management at Google - and at corporations and institutions worldwide, I have news for you: Intellectual diversity is a genuine form of diversity! The irony of Damore’s case is simply palpable. He got himself reprimanded by Danielle Brown, the Vice President of Diversity, Integrity and Governance for the organization. Her memo, sent to the entire community, indicated that his memo “ … advanced incorrect assumptions about gender.” And essentially implied that the expression of such assumptions would not be tolerated within their organization.
This memo from Ms. Brown explicitly takes a stand that there are “correct” and “incorrect” assumptions about gender. With all due respect, the scientific literature on this topic is, to put it lightly, fraught with controversies and a plurality of perspectives (see Buss & Malamuth, 1996; Schmitt, 2105; Fisher, Garcia, & Chang, 2013). If there is any scientific field in which the “reality” is nuanced and is still being figured out, it is the science of sex and gender. Even the scientists with the very strongest of opinions in this field would absolutely have to admit that there are multiple perspectives among scholars in the community.
As such, dismissing someone for raising ideas that connect with this scholarly area - but for explicitly connecting with the “incorrect” ideas and scholarship within the broader area of gender studies is nothing short of outrageous.
Further, when you read Mr. Damore’s memo, you find that his tone is professional and his approach in presenting his ideas is both organized and conciliatory. The fact that he was fired for sending these ideas around is appalling - and, to my mind, it raises foundational issues that are creating fissures in our broader society on a daily basis.
Intellectual diversity is a form of diversity. Period. For the chief diversity officer to fail to embrace this fact in this case goes well beyond irony.
On our campus, I have been an advocate of having intellectual diversity be considered as a basic form of diversity that needs to be protected within the academy. The Google Memo case makes it clear that this issue applies well beyond the boundaries of the Ivory Tower.
Special Programs for Women in the University
To some extent, the basic premise of Damore’s memo is that special programming for women in the Google corporate culture has been at least partly misguided and problematic.
I don’t work for Google so I don’t know what kinds of programs they have got there, but let me tell you about some data from SUNY New Paltz where I do work. And I’ll throw in an anecdote to make it interesting.
A few months ago, I was at a high-power meeting with several academic administrators. At this particular meeting, someone gave a presentation about an upcoming event - it was going to include a panel of highly successful female alumni from the university. And we were being asked to encourage our female students to attend. Sure, that sounds great, I figure. I support my female students with everything I have. I also happen to support my male students with this approach.
I asked a question and I will never forget the response. I essentially said this:
That sounds great! Thanks for your work on this important initiative. Hey, is there any effort being made to hold a similar event for males?
I have to say, I’m usually known as being pretty diplomatic in these kinds of meetings. Generally speaking, I’m good at putting things just so, etc. Well apparently I had said something blasphemous because all eyes looked at me - and the implicit message, from pretty much all 20 people in the room, was this:
Did Glenn really just say that? Out loud??? (insert pin-drop here)
Well I have news for you: Yes I did! I said that and I said it out loud!
Feeling slightly confused, I went and looked at some data regarding gender among our students. I looked at data going back several years, to make sure that anything I found was legitimate and generalizeable. Here is what I found - unequivocally:
Remind me again why it’s a ridiculous idea to have special programming for males in college?
The email memo incident is significant for several reasons. It reminds us that intellectual diversity is not given true “diversity status” in corporate circles. It reminds us that within a particular corporate culture there are, as Danielle Brown put it, “incorrect” views and assumptions - and espousing them will have substantial adverse consequences.
When it comes to the science of gender, as with many scholarly areas of human behavior, there are a plurality of perspectives and findings within the scientific community. A truly liberal and open culture allows for the expression of a plurality of ideas - and so the ability to express a plurality of ideas regarding gender and its role in the workplace should be strongly supported by leaders of a “liberal” organization.
At the end of the day, when it comes to truly supporting freedom of expression in our society, the Google memo incident tells one basic thing: We have a long way to go.
Buss, D.M. and Malamuth, N. (1996) Sex, Power, Conflict: Evolutionary and Feminist Perspectives. New York: Oxford.
Fisher, M., Garcia, J., & Chang, R. (2013). Evolution’s Empress: Darwinian Perspectives on the Nature of Women. New York: Oxford.
Schmitt, D.P. (2015). On accusations of exceptional male bias in evolutionary psychology: Placing sex differences in citation counts in proper evidentiary contexts. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 9, 69-72.
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