Google has a diversity problem and a lawsuit problem

  • Under the microscope: Google headquarters in Mountain View, California, near Palo Alto (File photograph by Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

    Under the microscope: Google headquarters in Mountain View, California, near Palo Alto (File photograph by Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)


On the face of it, the idea that Google is discriminating against white men is laugh-out-loud funny. In 2016, according to the company’s most recent diversity report, Google was 69 per cent male and 56 per cent white. Some 53 per cent of the engineering positions were held by white men. Leadership was 75 per cent male and 68 per cent white.

Meanwhile, 2 per cent of Google employees were black and 4 per cent Latino. Although Google has long insisted that it wants to be a more diverse company, these numbers would suggest that it has not had much success.

And yet in the past few months, Google has been hit with several lawsuits claiming the company discriminates against white males. And here’s the strangest part: there is a good chance Google is going to lose one of them.

This all began — or more accurately, this all burst into the open — last August when a ten-page screed against shortsighted diversity efforts, written by James Damore, a Google coder, was leaked to the tech website Gizmodo. The memo, which had been posted on an internal Google network, proposed that women could be underrepresented at the company not because hiring managers had a bias against them but because women themselves had less interest in the sort of work that Google does. Among the traits he attributed to women — and claimed were the reasons they are not as likely to want to go into coding — were “neuroticism”, “higher agreeableness” and “a stronger interest in people rather than things”.

Not surprisingly, Damore was soon fired. In January he filed suit, claiming that Google discriminated against white men who held conservative views. Although Damore is being represented by a high-powered lawyer who promotes conservative causes, he has little hope of winning. The National Labour Relations Board has already rejected his claim that his firing was an act of retaliation. Besides, one would be hard-pressed to think of a company that would not fire an employee who wrote a memo such as Damore’s. It is completely inappropriate.

Still, his memo and its aftermath unleashed something inside Google. The company’s women have long noted pay disparities — the subject of a lawsuit against Google last year — and the lack of leadership roles. They also began complaining more loudly about the attitudes of some of the software engineers they worked with, which, they said, echoed Damore’s views about female coders. “We know when we work with dudes like that,” wrote Cate Huston, a former Google engineer on the website Medium. “We know when we find their comments on our performance review. We know.”

A number of male coders, meanwhile, made it clear that they believe Damore has been punished for speaking an obvious, if politically awkward, truth. In their view, Google’s efforts to create a more diverse workforce have meant that more qualified men — both white and Asian — have been passed over for less qualified women and minorities. Last week, Bloomberg broke the news of a lawsuit filed in January by Arne Wilberg, a former Google and YouTube recruiter who says he was fired because he refused to go along with the company’s practices discriminating against white and Asian men.

In his complaint, Wilberg alleges that in its desperation to increase the number of minorities and women at the company, Google told recruiters for certain jobs to consider candidates only “from our underrepresented groups”. He says that recruiters were given quotas, that they were told to cancel interviews with white and Asian male job candidates, and to “purge” applications that were not women or minorities. When he complained about these practices to Google’s human resources department, the recruiters reacted by deleting e-mails that referenced its quota system.

Far more than Damore’s lawsuit, Wilberg’s is a real problem for Google. You may think that a company can hire whomever it wants, but that is not quite true. On the one hand, “companies that are government contractors, like Google, are obligated to seek out, recruit and bring in women and minorities”, said Gary Siniscalco, a veteran employment lawyer at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe.

On the other hand, there are rules limiting how companies can go about creating that diversity. They can set flexible goals, they can give minority candidates second looks, they can go out of their way to seek out women and minorities. But they cannot impose quotas. Siniscalco sent me the regulations, which include this paragraph:

“Placement goals may not be rigid and inflexible quotas, which must be met, nor are they to be considered as either a ceiling or a floor for employment of particular groups. Quotas are expressly forbidden.”

So if Wilberg has the evidence to back up his complaint, it does appear likely that Google has violated the law by excluding white and Asian men from certain job searches — setting a “ceiling” of zero. Even without federal regulations, quotas have become such a dirty word, with the Supreme Court consistently outlawing them in university diversity cases, that a jury may well find for Wilberg.

This potentially absurd result — that the courts could find that male-dominated Google has discriminated against men — is a problem entirely of Google’s own making. Companies all over, in every sector, undertake diversity efforts, but most of them know how to do it without ever explicitly resorting to quotas, or refusing to interview white men for particular jobs.

More than that, they know how to articulate the importance of diversity to an enterprise. In my profession, journalism, media companies want a diverse workforce in part because they will get better, richer stories if people from varied backgrounds and perspectives are reporting and writing those stories. The companies articulate that rationale and employees understand it. To an unusual degree, the tech industry has failed to make the case for a diverse workforce. Instead, they have allowed its software engineers to hijack the concept of a qualified employee — ie, someone who thinks and acts and looks just like them.

It has to pain Google’s founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, to see so many of their employees resisting diversity. As Emily Chang points out in her recent book Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley, they began the company with the dream that women would be as much a part of Google as men and would hold important leadership positions. Indeed, in its early years, three women — Susan Wojcicki, Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg — were instrumental to the company’s success.

But a combination of rapid growth and business problems caused the founders to take their eye off the ball. Like too many other tech companies, Google allowed a culture to flourish that drove women away. It could have created outreach programmes that encouraged women in college to take up engineering and coding to help to widen the universe of applications, but it didn’t. And when Brin and Page finally did pick up the diversity banner, they left it to human resources to spread the word, instead of having every leader in the company pushing it forward. All of that needs to start happening.

Google needs to do one other thing: explain to its employees that the Googleplex is a workplace, not a dorm. When you hire young, talented, entitled engineers and then take care of all their needs, from laundry to haircuts to recreation, “nobody has to be an adult”, says Patty McCord, the former head of HR for Netflix. One can hardly be surprised by a sophomoric company-wide memo about the biological predisposition of men towards engineering, or by talking too loudly about political beliefs.

The “don’t be evil” culture that once made Google such an attractive place to work has fractured. Brin and Page’s most important job right now is to put it back together.

Disclosure: Emily Chang’s book is published by Portfolio, a division of Penguin Random House, which has published three books that Joe Nocera has either written or co-written

Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg View columnist. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and The New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. He is the coauthor of Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA

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Published Mar 13, 2018 at 8:00 am (Updated Mar 13, 2018 at 8:06 am)

Google has a diversity problem and a lawsuit problem

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