Google misses an opportunity on diversity

Google fired an employee for a memo that suggested women were inherently less equipped for jobs in the technology sector.
Google fired an employee for a memo that suggested women were inherently less equipped for jobs in the technology sector. AP

Men and women are not just alike. Neither are black people and white people, or gay people and straight people, or Native Americans and the Irish.

While there is often more diversity within a group than between them, it is neither sexist nor racist to simply note biological and sociological differences.

Difference has never been the problem; how we respond to it has long been.

That’s the message getting lost in the latest pique of outrage, this time aimed at a man named James Demore. The engineer was recently fired by Google because of a document some deemed anti-diversity and sexist. It was neither; it was simply evidence of a mind that has never fully considered the complexity of gender and sexuality as experienced in the real world. It wasn’t offensive because he was trying to offend, but because he hadn’t done the requisite thinking to effectively tease out the nuance of such a sensitive subject.

Google has been praised by public relations experts for acting decisively and quickly, and by those who say men promoting the idea that women are inferior should be banished. Demore did not say women were inferior. What he did was detail the distribution of certain characteristics among men and women – then exaggerated and distorted those differences to argue against Google’s diversity efforts. And he discounted the lived reality of women in a variety of industries – and at Google – who’ve had to deal with pervasive inequalities and sexism. What he did was wrong, but it does none of us any good to overstate what he did wrong.

Google may benefit from a short-term bounce in its popularity because of the firing. But it comes at great cost. It’s just made its quest for diversity – on which it has spent $265 million since 2014 without real tangible results – that much more difficult.

Google can get rid of the author of the memo, but it can’t make the ideas presented in that memo disappear. Demore is not the only person who thinks the company has gone too far in its diversity efforts. Forcing their thinking further underground is like burying landmines. One day, they will explode; we just don’t know when or how much damage they’ll will cause when they do.

There is nothing wrong with difference. Difference only becomes disability when the privileged prioritize their comfort over the difficulty of establishing equality.

Discussions of group difference must be handled carefully, because for much of our history, they have been used to further disadvantage already-disadvantaged groups.

That’s what Demore didn’t understand. That’s why using his memo to open up a dialogue, no matter how uncomfortable or painful, would have been the wiser choice.

Until more companies and organizations start taking the more difficult path, we’ll forever be caught in a seemingly-inescapable dilemma, a want by under-represented groups to celebrate their difference and declare we are all just alike when people with whom we disagree take talk about difference somewhere we don't want them to.

Either women bring unique talents and perspectives to the table because of the experiences they have as women, or they don't.

Either we should value diversity because different groups bring different things to the table, or we should stop pretending that diversity matters.

Maybe Google grew successfully because they adopted a work environment and prioritized masculine characteristics.

Maybe the way for Google, and other organizations, to improve is to adopt a work environment that better prioritizes and rewards feminine characteristics.

We'll never be able to answer that question if we keep trying to shut down any uncomfortable discussion about difference.