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Ethical Analysis of Google Memo on Diversity

The firestorm over the leaked memo by Google employee James Damore raises questions about the ethical propriety of his actions as well as the response by Google employees and the company’s CEO, Sundar Pichai. First and foremost, the main ethical issue is this: While Damore has a right to say whatever he wants about Google’s policies, and even suggest women have a different skill set that may inhibit their advancement in the technology field, does it make it right to say such a thing? To make that determination we need to look at the good and bad of what his statements means in an open society.

In case you’ve been hiding in a bunker the past week or so just in case North Korea launches those missiles our way, the controversy arose after Damore’s internal memo went viral with many Googlers criticizing his alleged bias against women and using gender stereotypes, a no-no at Google.

Here’s an offensive statement in his memo:

“Women, on average, have more openness directed towards their feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas. Women generally also have a stronger interest in people rather than things, relative to men…These two differences in part explain why women relatively prefer jobs in social or artistic areas. More men like coding because it requires systemizing and even within software engineers, comparatively more women work on the front end, which deals with both people and aesthetics.”

OK, so Damore may be living in the 1960s. Does that mean he should have been fired for writing the memo? Whatever happened to free speech; debating divergent views in an open forum; and saying what you mean without fear of reprisal?

Google’s CEO criticized the memo that claimed women had biological issues that prevented them from being as successful as men in technology. CEO Pichai stated in his official response to the memo that these statements violated Google’s Code of Conduct and had crossed “the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.” It also was counter to the culture Google sought to develop – one of welcoming diversity.

[Ironically, the controversy has come at a sensitive time for Google, which is under investigation by the US government after accusations of gender pay inequality, and has been forced to hand over pay records].

Google was supposed to have a town hall meeting to discuss these issues, which would have been the mature thing to do. But, apparently, some within the company who objected to his statements did not want to be identified and had concerns about their safety if they spoke out. Google decided to cancel the meeting. How sad for Google and its employees. More ironic is the statement of Pichai in cancelling the meeting that:

“People must feel free to express dissent.” Isn’t that what Damore was doing?

It’s interesting to look at Google’s Code of Conduct which says in part:

"Don't be evil." “Google generally apply those words to how we serve our users. But ‘Don't be evil’ is much more than that. Yes, it's about providing our users unbiased access to information, focusing on their needs and giving them the best products and services that we can. But it's also about doing the right thing more generally -- following the law, acting honorably and treating each other with respect.”

I can’t argue with the latter part of the statement but “don’t be evil.” Seriously.

Notably, Alphabet, the parent company of Google, dropped the “Don’t be evil” part of the Code after taking control of Google in 2015. Still, the “don’t be evil” phrase seems to reflect the culture of Google as a company that decides what is evil; what is right or wrong; and it doesn’t welcome dissent.

The bottom line of the Google memo affair is we have morphed into a society where the sides are clear. There are those who believe their point of view is correct and all others are incorrect and even offensive – and must be shut down. And, there are those who want an open and honest dialogue on differences of opinion with the hope it will open our minds to divergent points of view and discussions we can have about them without fear of reprisals. Sadly, the former seems to be growing in numbers and influence while the latter feel threatened when they express an alternative point of view. This is not healthy for a democracy such as ours and, I believe, this conflict of interests may be the most serious challenge facing our free society today and whether we will remain so in the future.

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