Google report exposes deep-rooted diversity issues

Google’s annual diversity report released on 14 June shows slow progress has been made towards increasing diversity in its workforce. Despite inclusion initiatives, numbers reveal Google staff remains predominantly white or Asian and distinctly male.

The report is Google’s first since the controversial firing of engineer James Damore in August. Damore was dismissed following his memo that critiqued Google’s diversity programmes, recognised a bias against conservative ideology, and suggested biological differences might partly explain the gender gap in tech careers.

Damore’s memo recommended altering work environments to better suit traits more common in women. It received strong backlash for perpetuating gender stereotypes and triggered debate among Google staff.

Google’s recent report, however, confirmed that women still occupy less than a quarter of tech and leadership roles. Damore’s suggestions, though controversial, cohere with the figures and highlight problems with recruiting more females in those positions.

Damore and another former worker filed a suit against the company in January, claiming it held a prejudice against conservative white men. In February, the case found that Google did not violate federal labour law by firing Damore.

After the lawsuit, Google began formally reprimanding speech deemed discriminatory towards any group. Though by trying to expel prejudice from within its walls, Google may have created an atmosphere that shuts down any discussion on diversity.

Google engineer Tim Chevalier was fired in November after making several internal posts calling out racism and sexism at the company. Chevalier, who is disabled and transgender, has also sued Google for wrongful termination.

“It is a cruel irony that Google attempted to justify firing me by claiming that my social networking posts showed bias against my harassers. The anti-discrimination laws are meant to protect marginalised and underrepresented groups, not those who attack them,” Chevalier said.

Another engineer, Colin McMillen, was reprimanded by human resources for stating his refusal to work with individuals who share Damore’s beliefs. Other employees have received similar HR lectures after defending diversity programmes.

“They asked questions like, ‘Are you saying you won’t work with white people?’ and ‘Are you saying you won’t work with men?’” McMillen recalled. “I was saying, ‘If you believe women are inherently worse at engineering, I’m going to have a hard time working with you.’”

Both McMillen and Damore’s remarks demonstrate how words can be taken out of context and twisted to fit certain angles. Though Damore never actually claimed women were worse at technical positions, his memo was publically labelled as meaning such.

Following investigations, McMillen was recommended to remove himself from hiring and promotion roles for the year, as the company questioned his ability to remain impartial when evaluating others.

Freedom of speech and the work protections underneath it have been a precarious subject at the company. The disciplinary actions taken by Google have left some staff worried that advocating for diversity and inclusion initiatives will result in career consequences. Conservative employees have also abstained from internal debate, fearing their comments may be misconstrued or used against them.

Earlier this June, Google engineer Irene Knapp spoke at the company’s annual shareholder meeting, voicing employee concerns that the company has been promoting diversity publicly while hushing conversations behind closed doors.

“The chilling effect of harassment and doxxing has impaired productivity and company culture,” Knapp said. “Responses from HR have been inadequate, leaving minority communities unprotected.”

Knapp called for tying executive pay to diversity metrics, including employee recruiting and retention. The proposal was rejected by investors.

Google also vetoed a plan to increase ideological variety proposed by Justin Danoff from the National Center for Public Policy Research. Danoff recommended giving two open board seats to conservative members.

“Diversity is not what someone looks like”, Danoff said. “It’s the sum of what they think, they feel, and they believe, and at this company it appears that thinking and believing in conservative policies is verboten.”

Danoff argued that avoiding groupthink within the company may require members with political views opposing the majority. The proposal reflected similar themes found in Damore’s memo, which referred to Google as an “ideological echo chamber”.

Although ambiguity makes it challenging to define successful results, creating diverse workplaces remains a high priority at several corporations. If Google is to make genuine progress, being open to both the improvement and criticism of its programmes may be advantageous.

“Despite significant effort, and some pockets of success, we need to do more to achieve our desired diversity and inclusion outcomes,” wrote Danielle Brown, Google’s chief diversity and inclusion officer. “If we want a better outcome, we need to evolve our approach.

Google’s issues with handling diversity are indicative of parallel problems found at companies around the world. The discrepancy between free speech and repercussions has continued to blur in the advance towards diverse work environments. As corporations struggle to become more inclusive, new debates emerge concerning what measures should be enacted or restricted in order to improve.

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