Google fires employee behind anti-diversity memo

An employee criticizing diversity efforts was ousted after violating Google's code of conduct by "advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace."

Steven Musil Night Editor / News
Steven Musil is the night news editor at CNET News. He's been hooked on tech since learning BASIC in the late '70s. When not cleaning up after his daughter and son, Steven can be found pedaling around the San Francisco Bay Area. Before joining CNET in 2000, Steven spent 10 years at various Bay Area newspapers.
Expertise I have more than 30 years' experience in journalism in the heart of the Silicon Valley.
Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Steven Musil
Marguerite Reardon
7 min read
Watch this: Google dumps anti-diversity memo author

Google fired an employee who penned a controversial memo that argued biology prevents women from being as successful as men in the tech industry .

James Damore, the Google engineer identified as the memo's author, confirmed his dismissal in an email, saying that he had been fired for "perpetuating gender stereotypes," according to Bloomberg, which reported the news late Monday. Damore also confirmed his firing to The New York Times and Reuters.

Google declined to comment on the report, citing employee confidentiality.

Earlier in the day, Google CEO Sundar Pichai told employees that the memo's author violated company rules by penning and publishing the controversial memo. The wording of Pichai's memo to workers seemed to suggest the employee's actions could result in dismissal, something people inside and out of the search giant have been calling for.

"Portions of the memo violate our Code of Conduct and cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace," Pichai wrote in a memo to employees. "To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK."

Pichai's memo, titled "Our words matter," addressed the controversy that erupted over the weekend following the publication of a manifesto written by a senior engineer that criticizes the company's efforts to improve workforce diversity and its "left leaning" bias. The employee's 10-page memo went viral after being posted to an internal network, sparking outrage among Google employees.

Titled "Google's Ideological Echo Chamber," the employee argues that women are underrepresented in tech not as a result of bias and discrimination. Instead, "the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don't see equal representation of women in tech and leadership.

"We need to stop assuming that gender gaps imply sexism," the memo continued.

Damore, who worked on infrastructure for Google's search product, told The New York Times he believes his dismissal was illegal and that he would "likely be pursuing legal action." Before his firing, Damore said he submitted a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board charging Google's upper management with "misrepresenting and shaming me in order to silence my complaints."

"I have a legal right to express my concerns about the terms and conditions of my working environment and to bring up potentially illegal behavior, which is what my document does," Damore said.

Pichai's memo addressed this concern, and acknowledged that it's also "not OK" for employees to feel that they can't "safely express their views (especially those with a minority viewpoint)." He also acknowledged that Damore brought up valid concerns about Google's trainings and whether the diversity programs it has put in place are sufficiently open to all. But Pichai said the memo crossed a line.

Joelle Emerson, founder and CEO of Paradigm, a San Francisco-based firm that consults with tech companies to bring more diversity to their organizations, agrees.

"This idea that people should be able to share whatever sexist, misogynistic or racist thing they are thinking in the workplace is ridiculous," she said. "Organizations not only have a right, but an obligation, to create a workspace where people feel safe and to not feel judged that their biology makes them inferior."

The controversy comes as Silicon Valley companies grapple with how to increase workforce diversity in an industry dominated by white men and permeated with corporate cultures that seem biased against women and female engineers. Google, Facebook, Microsoft and other tech companies now regularly release diversity reports, highlighting low percentages of women and minority employees, with few moving up the management chain.

Emerson, who has worked with several tech companies, such as Airbnb, Pinterest and Slack, warns that Damore's views about the biological differences between men and women are not uncommon among engineers in Silicon Valley. She blames a pervasive culture of genius, where it's believed some people are simply born with brains made for engineering, that perpetuates stereotypes that women are inferior.

"These are not fringe views," she said. "This is less about Google and more about a perspective across the industry that has helped create more homogeneous views that have created barriers to women and other under-represented groups."

What can be done to change these views? Experts say there are no easy fixes, but there are things companies can do. Increasing the number of women and under-represented groups in the workforce is at the top of the list. But executives also need to create a more inclusive culture by making it clear that the company values diversity.

"What leaders say and how they behave is key," said Sondra Thiederman, a consultant who advises companies on how to recognize and deal with unconscious bias to make their work environments more diverse. This goes beyond simply restating the company's vision statement on diversity, she added.  

Thiederman pointed to a speech given last year by AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson in which he took a strong stance in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Thiederman said that what was powerful about his speech was his direct involvement in helping employees sympathize and understand one another, setting a tone for the rest of the company's more than 200,000 employees.

Telle Whitney, CEO and president of Anita Borg Institute of Women and Technology, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring more women are involved in creating technology, said she is encouraged by Google's response to Damore's memo, though she wishes the company had responded more quickly. Google is one of 70 partners working with her organization to drive more diversity in their workforces.

"I think Google's CEO hit a good balance to show that the company acknowledges the need for different voices, but also that they won't tolerate diatribes that violate their code of conduct," she said.

While she admits that the companies her organization works with are all in different stages of addressing the diversity problem in technology, she is optimistic that change is on the horizon.

"This is not just a Google problem," she said. "But I hope that what's happened here gets the attention of other companies who should realize these views are part of their workforce, too. And they need to be addressed."

Here's Pichai's memo to staff:

This has been a very difficult time. I wanted to provide an update on the memo that was circulated over this past week.

First, let me say that we strongly support the right of Googlers to express themselves, and much of what was in that memo is fair to debate, regardless of whether a vast majority of Googlers disagree with it. However, portions of the memo violate our Code of Conduct and cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace. Our job is to build great products for users that make a difference in their lives. To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK. It is contrary to our basic values and our Code of Conduct, which expects "each Googler to do their utmost to create a workplace culture that is free of harassment, intimidation, bias and unlawful discrimination."

The memo has clearly impacted our co-workers, some of whom are hurting and feel judged based on their gender. Our co-workers shouldn't have to worry that each time they open their mouths to speak in a meeting, they have to prove that they are not like the memo states, being "agreeable" rather than "assertive," showing a "lower stress tolerance," or being "neurotic."

At the same time, there are co-workers who are questioning whether they can safely express their views in the workplace (especially those with a minority viewpoint). They too feel under threat, and that is also not OK. People must feel free to express dissent. So to be clear again, many points raised in the memo—such as the portions criticizing Google's trainings, questioning the role of ideology in the workplace, and debating whether programs for women and underserved groups are sufficiently open to all—are important topics. The author had a right to express their views on those topics—we encourage an environment in which people can do this and it remains our policy to not take action against anyone for prompting these discussions.

The past few days have been very difficult for many at the company, and we need to find a way to debate issues on which we might disagree—while doing so in line with our Code of Conduct. I'd encourage each of you to make an effort over the coming days to reach out to those who might have different perspectives from your own. I will be doing the same.

I have been on work related travel in Africa and Europe the past couple of weeks and had just started my family vacation here this week. I have decided to return tomorrow as clearly there's a lot more to discuss as a group—including how we create a more inclusive environment for all.

First published, Aug. 7, 6:49 pm PT.
Update, 10:30 p.m. PT:  Added more information about Damore.
Updates, Aug. 8 at 6:56 a.m. PT and 4:02 p.m. PT: Adds full text of Pichai memo and commentary from diversity experts. 

Solving for XX: The industry seeks to overcome outdated ideas about "women in tech."

Special Reports: All of CNET's most in-depth features in one easy spot.