Opinion

Renée Graham

The Google memo should mark a turning point against sexism. It won’t

Gender issues in business. Man versus woman inequality symbol with big wall separating them. Eps10 vector illustration.

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Written by an employee at one of the world’s most valuable companies, a 3,300 word, 10-page manifesto that promoted stereotypes about women in technology — and went viral — should be a watershed moment for addressing rampant sexism in Silicon Valley and beyond.

It won’t be.

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I dismiss as misogynistic nonsense the belief, expressed by screed writer and now-fired Google engineer James Damore, that “biological causes” explain why “we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership.” Yet I’m inclined to believe what the Harvard graduate told Bloomberg in an interview after his dismissal. Though he published his memo “about a month ago,” he said, “No one high up came to me and said, ‘No, don’t do this,’ even though there were many people who looked at it. It was only after [his manifesto] got viral that upper management started shaming me and eventually [fired] me.”

On the conspiracy incubator that is social media, some claim Damore is an actor in a larger alt-right anti-diversity agenda — a Manchurian man-baby, if you will. Damore did nothing to quash such rumors by giving his first post-firing interview to what CBS News described as a “right-wing YouTube personality.”

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Still, if Damore is to be believed, Google only came correct after his memo became a worldwide PR disaster. Now the company is scrambling to clean up its mess, while again addressing questions about a corporate culture that would rather talk about its commitment to diversity than actually commit to diversity. And these issues aren’t confined to Silicon Valley.

According to its own figures, Google’s workforce is 31 percent female, with 20 percent in tech positions and 25 percent in leadership positions. Yet the issue goes beyond the numbers. During the final days of the Obama administration, Department of Labor officials said they found “systemic compensation disparities against women” at the company. Google denies a gender pay gap.

Tech entrepreneur C.A. Webb has seen it all before. A co-founder and former partner at venture capital company Underscore VC, Webb said, “I read it and thought, ‘Here’s a guy who’s making rational arguments that reflect a complete lack of understanding about the history of gender roles and the systemic discrimination that women have faced.’” Still, she added that there’s useful knowledge when “you can really start to understand their embedded assumptions and how their mind works. You can actually start to confront those biases.”

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Of course to confront them, companies have to acknowledge those biases exist — and not only when they become headline news. Now it’s Google; in June, it was Uber. The ride-hailing company is trying to change a corporate climate so toxic that a male board member resigned in June after making a sexist joke during a meeting about its sexist culture. After a separate internal investigation CEO Travis Kalanick was also forced to resign. That same month, more than 20 women in tech spoke to The New York Times about working in an industry rife with sexism and sexual harassment.

How many one-offs does it take before the industry confronts what is clearly an ingrained anti-woman culture? I can only conclude that companies aren’t getting it right about diversity and inclusion because they have no desire to get it right, and that its officials believe the occasional public embarrassment is just the price of doing business.

After Kalanick’s departure, former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, one of the highest-profile women in tech, defended him, saying, “I just don’t think he knew. When your company scales that quickly, it’s hard.” That’s a crock, and has nothing to do with massive growth. You either respect women and treat them as valuable and equal members of a corporate team, or view them derisively as tokens foisted upon your company to stave off external scrutiny for another fiscal year.

Webb, who founded the 50/50 Project to promote gender equality in tech, said Damore’s memo and public reaction could prove to be a watershed moment, if enough people in the industry take a stand against institutionalized gender discrimination. The summer of 2017 could be the moment, she says, when men and women in tech say, “Enough. We have had enough.”

Of course, that attitude must also ultimately permeate the “C suites,” the offices where the CEO, CFO, and other top executives work. This is more than urgent a PR problem to be addressed with boilerplate “we care” corporate-speak. To treat it as anything less allows the culture to remain a cesspool for women, and yet another much needed watershed moment will be lost again.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.
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