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SocietyAugust 14, 2017

The Google ‘manifestbro’ caps a terrible week for women in tech

Mother watching daughter assembling electronics at science center

Just days after the sacking of a Google engineer who shared an anti-diversity manifesto came the reckons of a New Zealand software executive who thinks that women just aren’t ‘wired’ for tech. Sacha Judd stopped eye-rolling long enough to compose a response.

When I was a university debater in the nineties, the two most common topics we argued in competitions were the alarmingly dated question of whether or not we should negotiate with terrorists, and whether or not “political correctness” had gone too far. Even then, when the term was really only just entering the mainstream, there was already this sense that it was going to be an eternal shorthand for your racist uncle, your sexist boss or Mike Hosking to lob around. A way for a certain kind of person to complain that someone was making sure they no longer had the right to say whatever they damned pleased.

It’s been a depressing and unavoidable outcome of Trump’s America and the rise of the alt-right that, a quarter of a century later, these hackneyed ideas are getting renewed airtime. It’s as if, after naively thinking the world was inexorably making progress, the rubber band snapped back and we were freshly confronted with the reality of how much work there is still to do.

After five years of working on diversity and inclusion issues in the tech sector, the events at Google over the last week feel to me like the industry’s equivalent of that political snap back – a sharp, public reminder of how far we have to go.

Motherboard has now published the full leaked text of the ten-page memo circulated internally at Google by software engineer James Damore, in which he expounded at length on his view that Google was becoming an “ideological echo chamber”, and that a focus on diversity and inclusion was stifling differences of opinion. He went on to contend (among other things) that the reason women are underrepresented in tech is because of biological differences between men and women, and that women are neurotic and have a lower tolerance for stress.

‘Google manifesto’ author James Damore

Presented with a veneer of pseudo-academic language (complete with footnotes and links), and starting with the statement that Damore “value(d) diversity and inclusion”, the memo was set up in such a way as to seem uncontestable; to respond negatively to it was to reinforce his view that he wasn’t allowed to express his opinions. In fact, in the opening paragraphs Damore claims to have received messages of gratitude from fellow Googlers who feel the same way that he does, but weren’t prepared to express their views for fear of being fired (#spoileralert).

Google’s initial response was lukewarm. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, new VP of Diversity, Integrity and Governance Danielle Brown issued a statement that the memo was “not a viewpoint that I or this company endorses, promotes or encourages”, but that “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.”

The firestorm continued, both within and outside the company, and within days, Damore had been fired for “perpetuating gender stereotypes”. Now a martyr and hero to the alt-right, news of Damore’s dismissal flooded the front page of Brietbart, and professional trolls like Milo Yiannopoulos and Julian Assange offered their support.

A few days later, here in New Zealand, Stuff was click-hungry enough to find Claudia Hill, the managing director of a Hamilton software firm who thinks that women should just accept that we’re wired differently and may not be suited to software development.

Let’s just pause on that for a second: Women aren’t ‘wired correctly’ to be software engineers. An industry that women (like Ada Lovelace, Hedy Lamarr and Grace Hopper) created, and then were culturally squeezed out of in the 1980s, is apparently now an industry that we’re not biologically suited for.

Screeds like Damore’s manifesto and interviews with our friend in Hamilton are dangerous because they’re empirically wrong, but use the language of empiricism: they appeal to ‘science’ and use objective, reasoned language. Lay people tend to be swayed by the magic words “studies show…”.

Auckland students attend a TechWeek 2016 event (Image: Supplied)

The fallout from these things is insidious, because anti-diversity proponents are able to shift the ground to an argument about “free speech” and differing opinions – as if whether or not your colleagues are biologically inferior to you at their jobs is just a disagreement you can have in the pub or at a university debating tournament. As if all views are equivalent and deserving of equal airtime. As tech entrepreneur Jack Danger writes, if you’re a good person and you want to debate these ideas, you need to understand that if you have “a controversial opinion that, by its very nature, sparks a conversation that causes people harm, then it causes harm to express it.”

And for women and underrepresented minorities in tech, it’s yet another blow. It means feeling like we have to start from scratch again, establishing our legitimacy in the teams and the companies in which we work, and we have to do it while side-eyeing our colleagues and wondering whether they share Damore’s point of view.

More than this, though, it’s a giant distraction from the fact that what the tech sector needs more than anything is not for a few more conservative white dudes to feel like their political views are protected at work. The whole industry needs a giant dose of empathy and diversity, one that will help it build products and services that reflect and provide for the world around us. Even if Damore’s vapid evolutionary theories passed muster, and traits like empathy were somehow biologically determined, the logical conclusion would be that the industry should hire hundreds more women.

Instead, the all-hands meeting called at Google to discuss Damore’s firing had to be cancelled this week, because of online harassment by the alt-right of Googlers who had criticised the memo.

Now that Damore has lost his job, collective action is even more important. The amazing team at Project Include is providing the tools, benchmarks, standards and support to reset the industry. It’s now time for tech companies and their leaders to respond.

This week Project Include published their first year-in-review. In it, they note that while “it’s promising to see public pressure finally force a company like Uber to hold its CEO accountable for its failures… we have a long way to go. How do we move forward from this? What can we learn from this example? Let’s not just say, ‘he resigned, we won.’ Let’s figure out what’s next, together.”

As Google now wrestles with the same dilemma, it’s clear that diversity and inclusion work is complicated, progress is slow-moving, and there remain a number of people in the industry who are extremely resistant to change. But it also feels like this forward momentum is still inexorable, and if we keep at it – keep holding companies and their leaders to account, keep dismissing bad science, and keep focussing on positive change – then maybe this is a “debate” we won’t have to keep having for very much longer.

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