Google Fires Engineer Who Criticized Diversity Efforts

Aug 8, 2017
Originally published on August 8, 2017 7:44 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Google has fired a software engineer who wrote a controversial internal memo that leaked over the weekend. James Damore's memo, called "Google's Ideological Echo Chamber," criticized the company's effort to diversify its workforce. And in doing so, the memo relied on gender stereotypes about women in tech. And let's talk more about this with NPR's Laura Sydell. Hi, Laura.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So tell us exactly what this memo said.

SYDELL: Well, among the things that the memo said was that Google was an echo chamber of opinion. And if you criticize the company's efforts at diversity, then you were a bad person. And most specifically, though, the memo questioned whether or not women were biologically suited to be engineers. And I think that's what really set off the firestorm within Google.

GREENE: I can imagine. I mean - and we should this is one person's opinion that he sent around to colleagues. That's what leaked.

SYDELL: Exactly. So he sent it around to colleagues. And essentially it got out companywide. And then once it got out companywide, it got out on the Internet. And it was not in any way an official memo. It was - people actually jokingly called it a manifesto (laughter).

GREENE: So it sounds like I mean he was making several arguments - one, the gender stereotypes that you mentioned but also suggesting that there is no freedom to express views about diversity within the company. And the fact that he was then fired seems to back up his argument again. So I guess I wonder, what exactly did the company say is the reason for his dismissal?

SYDELL: Well, the company - in a memo, Sundar Pichai, who is the CEO of Google, said specifically that people are allowed to express different views. But in this case, this memo violated the company's code of conduct and that it actually led to creating a work environment for others that was hostile. So you know, Google has to create a workplace culture that's free of harassment, intimidation, bias and unlawful discrimination. So that's the reason that Google gave.

I should add here, David, that Google is under investigation right now by the U.S. labor department. And the U.S. labor department is looking into salaries and saying that Google is paying women less than men. Google has repeatedly refused to actually release those numbers. But Google is in an interesting position here where they're being investigated. And then this, you know, leaked manifesto comes out.

GREENE: A manifesto the company suggest was just discriminatory and crossed a line, which is why they're firing him.

SYDELL: Exactly, exactly.

GREENE: Well, has he responded? Has James Damore, this software engineer who wrote it, responded?

SYDELL: He has. And essentially he has said he is going to sue the company. So - and he obviously feels it is proof of exactly what he says. And he has - I should say that far-right websites are supporting him and saying the fact that Google fired him is proof of exactly what he said - that there's a, you know, a left-wing echo chamber at Google and that, you know, if you violate that code of conduct or that left-wing viewpoint, you end up getting shut down.

GREENE: Diversity was already such a big issue around Silicon Valley. I imagine this story is (laughter) causing some more waves.

SYDELL: (Laughter) It certainly is causing a lot more waves around Silicon Valley right now. And you know, I think right now James Damore's name is trending on Twitter. So I think this has become a huge thing. I do want to add one more thing here, David...

GREENE: Yeah.

SYDELL: ...That I think is important to remember. Google actually is in a more complicated position than other companies legally because Google has peer review. So essentially James Damore would be able to review his peers, and people are promoted given salaries based on what their peers say about them. And I think that's one of the reasons that Google was in a very difficult position here about whether to keep him.

GREENE: He can affect other people's lives even though he's not a manager. Speaking to...

SYDELL: Exactly.

GREENE: NPR's Laura Sydell updating us on that story at Google. Thanks so much.

SYDELL: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.