What should Sundar Pichai say to Googlers?

Google CEO Pichai had planned a meeting to discuss a fired engineer’s divisive memo on diversity. But he canceled it after employees worried they might be harassed.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
5 min read

Google CEO Sundar Pichai is expected to address Googlers about diversity on Thursday.

James Martin/CNET

Google CEO Sundar Pichai canceled an all-hands staff meeting Thursday meant to address a diversity controversy that in the last few days has dogged the company behind the world's largest search engine. 

"We had hoped to have a frank, open discussion today as we always do to bring us together and move forward," Pichai wrote in a memo obtained by CNET. But employee questions "appeared externally this afternoon, and on some websites Googlers are now being named personally. Googlers are writing in, concerned about their safety and worried they may be 'outed' publicly for asking a question."

Even though the meeting has been put off, Pichai still has a lot of explaining to do. The question is: Does he have the right answer?

To recap: A senior Google engineer named James Damore wrote a 10-page, 3,300-word manifesto, entitled "Google's Ideological Echo Chamber," that argued a gender gap at Google exists not because of sexism, but because of "biological" differences between men and women. TLDR: Women aren't cut out for high-stress leadership roles or for jobs in tech.

Damore's manifesto went viral internally at the company and was made public Friday night. It caused a swift firestorm: Googlers publicly criticized it on Twitter. Megan Smith, a former Googler and CTO of the United States under the administration of former President Barack Obama, said engineers with viewpoints like Damore's "are misguided and they are destructive to their colleagues. It causes people to leave the industry."

Pichai, one of the most prominent Indian-born executives in tech, issued a companywide response, saying the memo went against Google's "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." 

He thought the issue was so serious it prompted him to cut short his family's overseas vacation.

Google fired the 28-year-old Damore earlier this week. Damore, who has been a researcher at MIT, Harvard and Princeton and has worked at Google for more than three years, reportedly said he was submitting a complaint against Google to the National Labor Relations Board.

The "alt-right" movement has come to his defense. One group set up a crowdfunding page for Damore that's raised more than $37,000 as of Thursday afternoon, arguing that "the radical Left has been whipping up hate mobs to get independents, libertarians, conservatives, and simple contrarians publicly shamed, bullied, and fired from their jobs for years." Damore gave his first interview after he was fired to conservative YouTube host Stefan Molyneux. Damore told him one of his motivations for creating the memo: He went to a Google diversity class and spoke up because he disagreed about the points. "There was so much hypocrisy in a lot of the things they were saying," he said.

In another interview later Wednesday, Damore told Bloomberg TV that Google executives are now smearing him. "There was a concerted effort among upper management to have a very clear signal that what I did was harmful and wrong and didn't stand for Google," Damore told Bloomberg TV. "It would be career suicide for any executives or directors to support me."

Watch this: Fired Google engineer defends controversial memo

The controversy surfaces painful critiques about Silicon Valley, an industry that proudly proclaims itself a meritocracy. It's often said here that code settles all arguments. Damore's musings show clearly it's a bit more complicated than that.

But there are also nonphilosophical questions at hand, which Pichai will likely need to address.

For starters, Google's internal systems rely at least partly on peer reviews, in which "employees at the company are expected to judge their colleague's work in a peer-review process that is essential to deciding whether someone gets promoted," The New York Times noted. "By expressing certain beliefs -- such as that women are more prone to anxiety -- the concern was that he could no longer be impartial in judging female co-workers."

Is Google revisiting Damore's peer reviews -- seeing as how his input could have negatively impacted his female coworkers?

Google declined to comment.

Have any of the people peer reviewed by Damore requested that those reviews be revisited?

Google declined to comment.

What about his boss, Google co-founder Larry Page? He's CEO of Google's parent company Alphabet, and a fellow board member. Will he weigh in? What does he think?

Google declined to comment.

And the company also denied my request to attend the meeting at the Googleplex in Mountain View, California, saying it was for Googlers only. But it's almost certain that whatever Pichai eventually says about the issue will make its way out into the public.

Under the spotlight

The timing of the fallout couldn't be worse. Google is in the middle of a US Department of Labor investigation examining claims of gender pay discrimination. (Google has denied those allegations.) And the spotlight is shining as intensely as ever on the notion of Silicon Valley as a boys club. Google's workforce is 31 percent women, according to the company's latest diversity report. That drops to 20 percent when you count just technical staff. Even with a big push for diversity at the company, the percentage of women and minorities has remained stagnant.

The drama also comes after Uber became a poster child of bro culture, prompted by a blog post written by former engineer Susan Fowler in February about the harassment and sexist culture she faced during her year at the world's leading ride-hailing company. After an internal investigation led by former Attorney General Eric Holder, CEO Travis Kalanick resigned in June.

No one's expecting Pichai to step down. But they are expecting the man building the search engine of the future, one that can anticipate all your questions, to have a few answers.

(As a thought exercise, Googling "how to fix the diversity problem in the tech industry" yields a few suggestions. Expand the talent pipeline. Come up with a "more comprehensive set of metrics to track and measure the problems." It's more complex than that, but you get the idea.)

At the very least, Pichai has shown he's taking the whole situation seriously. He already fired Damore and brought the wrath of the "alt-right" down on Google. And he's already denounced many of the ideas about gender that Damore brought up in his memo.

"To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK," Pichai wrote. 

Google also recently hired a diversity chief, Danielle Brown, who condemned Damore's manifesto in a memo to employees. "We are unequivocal in our belief that diversity and inclusion are critical to our success as a company," she wrote. "And we'll continue to stand for that and be committed to it for the long haul."

The all-hands meeting was the first chance Pichai had to speak to his workforce face-to-face on the hot-button issue. Now they'll have to wait to see what he has to say.

So will the rest of the tech industry.

First published Aug. 9, 9:01 p.m. PT.
Update, Aug. 10 at 4:32 p.m.: Adds that all-hands meeting was canceled. 

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