On the Google-bro Memo

tl;dr By now, everybody has heard of the memo that was passed around by the Google-bro, claiming that Google should reduce its efforts at explicit diversity hiring and how his message was unwelcome within Google’s halls; my reaction is that he had a small point, but it was drowned in the inanity of his larger, and far more incorrect, message.

First, let’s set a few facts out into the world:

  1. I read the memo. Front to back, top to bottom.
  2. I spent a significant amount of my college years analyzing papers like these.
  3. My politics tend to stem from left of center principles, although I have for years believed that the nation is best served by a healthy balance between right and left. (For example, I mourn the loss of a conservative party in the US whose principal concern is reducing government spending.)
  4. I do not now work for Google, nor have I ever.

Having established that, let’s begin.

Summary of the memo

Effectively, my read on the memo was simple: Google-bro sought (despite all the caveats and disclaimers) to effectively posit the argument that women are inferior to men as Google employees, and that therefore the efforts Google puts in to hire them are efforts that could be better used elsewhere. (Or, put another way, the gender gap in tech is explainable not by systemic bias in the industry, but by other factors that Google fails to recognize, and that programs that seek to reduce that gap are wasteful and potentially creating greater problems.) He also states that this argument is not welcome inside of Google because of the monocultural echo chamber that Google has built that makes people of right-of-center beliefs feel unwelcome, unaccepted, and “shamed” for their beliefs.

Reaction from the outside

Reactions of course spanned a gamut of emotion. Much of it centered around the notions of free speech and reverse discrimination, or in some cases reacting to Google’s reaction to terminate the Google-bro’s employment.

Many were outraged at the argument about women being inferior in technology, but for the most part, as is common in this industry around the critical points, everybody was basically arguing past each other: “Misogyny!” “Free speech!” “Misogyny!” “Free speech!” ad infinitum.

Some chose to try to co-mingle the two points, including the essay written by one well-known industry talking head who chose to frame his discussion in terms of an elevator or some such. Alas, that well-known industry pundit’s piece entitled “Thought Police” did nothing to really shed any light on the subject, and his follow-up piece lamenting the inability to discuss things rationally similarly failed to offer up anything resembling a discussion. Or rational thought. He then later offered up a piece about his experience working with women in technology which, as is common for white dudes who want to continue to believe that there’s no real gender issue in the technical world, because he hadn’t really run across it. He cites his horrible mistake at a keynote that actually offended a ton of people (calling it “stumbling upon an issue”, italics included), but never really apologizes for actually having, you know, offended anybody. (His take is that “I thought about the complaints and issued appropriate apologies if I thought they had a reasonable point.” Because only the rational and reasonable are due an apology when a mistake is made.)

(In the same post, he goes on to talk about “character assassination” conducted against him, which I personally find amusing in a post entitled “Women in Tech”. Yes, Uncle Bob, I’m referring to you; no, I’m not seeking to assassinate your character; yes, I’m calling you out for having made multiple mistakes on this issue; and no, I’m not expecting that you will come to hear anything I say here as a reasonable or rational discussion. I have tremendous respect for your professional skill, but my respect for your personal morals and ethics has taken a huge hit, nor am I in any way under the illusion that your stance on this issue will be affected an iota by my analysis, commentary or opinion. What you choose to do from here is, as always, entirely up to you.)

Unfortunately, numerous people have made similar mistakes, conflating the two issues, until it got all well out of hand and impossible to discuss in any way, shape or form even remotely resembling fair, calm, or open-minded exchange. I chose to wait for a while before throwing my own comments out into the world. I don’t expect that this will do much to provide additional clarity, but the more I was chewing it over in my head, the more I wanted to get all these thoughts out.

Disclaimer

I don’t mean to suggest that these views represent anybody’s viewpoint but my own.

In point of fact, my company recently posted a statement on their position on the whole thing, which I thought was neatly summarized by this single sentence:

In short, our position is this: If we didn’t think each and every one of our employees had smart things to say, they wouldn’t be here. We will fight to ensure that every employee’s voice is heard, so long as it does no harm to anyone else.

You can stop right here if you want to—that’s basically the tl;dr version of my own viewpoints on the matter. What follows is my dissection of what I thought was a ridiculously poorly-written position paper.

My take

As I said above, I noted two basic points to the memo, but those points comprise some pretty wide territory, so I will seek to address them in manageable pieces.

Biodeterminism

Google-bro’s main argument, that women are somehow not as well-suited for positions at Google as men are, is an argument that reappears every decade or two, and its more widely known as “biodeterminism”, that is, that your biology has a deterministic effect on your success at a particular “thing”. It was widely used, for example, as an argument in the years leading up to the Civil War against the Negro race being able to survive in a modern world.

Among our neighbors of Central and Southern America, we see the Caucasian mingled with the Indian and the African. They have the forms of free government, because they have copied them. To its benefits they have not attained, because that standard of civilization is above their race. Jefferson Davis, Speech, 1858

We recognize the fact of the inferiority stamped upon that race of men [African-American] by the Creator, and from the cradle to the grave, our Government, as a civil institution, marks that inferiority. Reply in the Senate to William H. Seward (29 February 1860), Senate Chamber, U.S. Capitol. As quoted in The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Volume 6, pp. 277–84. Transcribed from the Congressional Globe, 36th Congress, 1st Session, pp. 916–18.

Biodeterminism (also known as “scientific racism” has been used in all sorts of arguments, including those which have suggested that black atheletes are naturally more athletic than their white counterparts, or that Asians are intrinsically better studiers, and so on. In fact, it goes back centuries, including but not limited to the development of the IQ test, as well as the study of “craniometry”, or that the shape of your skull is a highly determining factor in your intelligence.

In 1981, Stephen Jay Gould wrote the definitive takedown of biodeterminism as an argument, in response to much of the biodeterministic argument taking place at the time. (He wrote a revised edition in response to the same argument that cropped up a decade or so later. He’s since passed away, or I suspect he’d be hard at work on a third edition.) A paleontologist by training, Gould effectively sought to demonstrate that much of the evidence being submitted as supportive of a theory of biological determination of intelligence was in effect bad science and confirmation bias of the researchers’ pre-determined opinion. (His work was criticized in turn for succumbing to bad science, but much of that was done by those who sought to push the biodeterministic argument forward—his science has since been cleared, though his prose is argued to be a bit “overgeneralized” and “broad” in places, which is a fair critique.)

More to the point, Google-bro’s work in the memo was shoddy and largely unsubstantiated. For example, he listed a number of ways men and women differ biologically, such as “The underlying traits are highly heritable”, a wonderfully vague statement that fails to list the traits of which he speaks, how they are heritable, which traits aren’t heritable, and by what scientific basis he makes the claim. (We won’t even begin to dissect the point “[The biological differences are] exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective.“)

His attempts at making use of gender stereotypes as assumed psychological behavior of all (or at least a stastically significant majority) men and women involved in technology is cherry-picked at best. For example, he cites the Wikipedia article “Sex differences in psychology” for his “differences in personality traits”, and yet fails to note the very first line of that page, which reads:

Sex differences in psychology or gender differences are differences in the mental functions and behaviors of the sexes, and are due to a complex interplay of biological, developmental, and cultural factors. Differences have been found in a variety of fields such as mental health, cognitive abilities, personality, and tendency towards aggression. Such variation may be both innate or learned and is often very difficult to distinguish. Modern research attempts to distinguish between such differences, and to analyze any ethical concerns raised. Since behavior is a result of interactions between nature and nurture researchers are interested in investigating how biology and environment interact to produce such differences,[1][2][3] although this is often not possible.[4]

In particular, let’s take note of the sentence “Such variation may be both innate or learned and is often very difficult to distinguish”, which sort of blew right past him when he read the page.

Also of particular interest is the last sentence of the opening section:

Differences in socialization of males and females may decrease or increase the size of sex differences.

Considering that much of the criticism leveled at the industry from women in the field centers around the social aspects—and the fact that they are routinely subjected to a degree of criticism and discrimination (accidental or otherwise)—including but not limited to the assumption made at very early ages that “boys are better at math and science”, it seems that at the very least, Google-bro’s biodeterminstic argument is on flawed and very, very shaky ground. Lacking any sort of empirical evidence or experiments specific to this industry, it is reasonable to conclude that his argument is fundamentally flawed, particularly considering the overwhelming amount of anecdotal (and some scientific) evidence to suggest that yes, there is in fact a structural bias weighing in against women in technology.

And frankly, that’s not the point I really want to discuss.

Free speech

The right of free speech is guaranteed by the Consitution of the United States, such that the government is not permitted to muzzle its citizens with regard to the topics they wish to discuss in public. You may demonstrate, you may assemble, and you may criticize your government and/or its leaders all without fear of reprisal by said government or any of its executive/enforcement bodies.

That said, however, a private company is not a government. Google has every right to terminate the employment of any of its employees “for cause” so long as that cause is not explicitly protected by law. You may not terminate somebody because of the color of their skin, the plumbing of their genitalia, the invisible entity they choose to worship, or the number of years they’ve spent on the planet; these are all protected by law.

The right to assemble, the right to speak your political mind, or the right to be ridiculously stupid are not protected rights within a private organization. (Neither is the length of hair, by the way, nor the kind of shoes you choose to wear.) If an employee walks into the company and states, “I believe that Adolf Hitler was a great man” in a very loud voice, that company has every right to terminate that person’s employment every bit as much as if the same individual were to walk in and start proclaiming his allegiance to Stalin. Or to start chanting phrases from the Necronomicon.

The cause here is not based on the words coming out of their mouth, but the impact those words are having on the people around them—frankly, walking into your place of employment and spending the day trying to convert everybody over to your form of religion is equally grounds for termination, because you are impeding their work product by making them uncomfortable. It has nothing to do with the content of your words, but everything to do with the impact it is having on the people around you. Naturally, the more extreme the viewpoint, the more uncomfortable people will become, particularly if you come in wearing clothing and accessories that support that viewpoint, if only because they’re thrust into a situation where they aren’t sure how to react. Even if that viewpoint is “The US Army is an amazing place to be”, if you’re decked out in fatigues and carrying a mock rifle.

(True story: I contracted for a firm where one of the project managers was a recently-retired US Army vet. He was methodical, disciplined, and very effective as a project manager. However, over a span of four months, he grew increasingly irritable, came to work in his fatigues, and openly discussed killing techniques. Several complaints were filed, and the company finally took action when he came to work openly wearing his survival knife on his belt, since bringing a weapon onto company grounds was a clear violation of the company handbook. Prior to that, however, the company had already started to assemble the necessary documentation to demonstrate that his actions were creating a hostile workplace environment, so barring any major shift in his personality back to a more workplace-friendly manner, his termination was essentially assured. In retrospect, it was pretty clear he was suffering from some sort of PTSD-ish affliction, but any suggestions that he might want to look into some form of counseling or therapy were basically met with, “Are you saying I’m unable to do my job? Are you calling me incompetent?” and a very threatening look. Most people stopped trying to help him after that, unfortunately. More to the point, however, even had he not brought the knife, his manner, his dress and his choice of topics made many people very concerned about coming in to work—he would today be easily labled as a “disgruntled employee risk”—and the company had every right, if not outright requirement, to terminate his employment. Their hesitation was driven by the fact that HR needed to make sure they had the necessary documentation in case of lawsuit.)

Employer resources

Google has been criticized by both sides: from the left, for not firing Google-bro right away, and from the right, for firing him at all. “Unsafe!” screams the left, and “Thought police!” screams the right. Google-bro filed a wrongful termination lawsuit immediately after his firing, which will make interesting fodder for the legal pages once it finally reaches a judge, if ever—it’s actually in Google’s best interest to make the case quietly disappear, most likely by trading a non-defamation clause and gag order in exchange for a cash payout.

Again, regardless of the content, the bigger question here is, did the individual make use of company resources—his Google email account, his Google-issued equipment, the Google-supplied network or the Google-paid time—to engage in any of this? If so, he is clearly subject to the terms and conditions of his employment agreement, which usually state that such resources may not be used for personal purposes. Writing said memo, particularly one that was not submitted through any sort of HR channel or to his supervisors anywhere along the hierarchy, pretty much qualifies as personal purposes, every bit as much as using those resources to write a work of fiction would.

If Google-bro made use of company resources to write and/or distribute his memo, he’s basically in violation of the company’s terms of service, and that’s pretty much all she wrote there. If he wrote the memo on his personal Google Docs account (not his work one), on his own time, on his own laptop, and used his personal GMail account to send it to others at Google on their personal accounts (not their work accounts), then he can claim that he never used Google-corporate resources, and that this was every bit a “personal” exercise. Chances of this being the case? Pretty close to nil, from what little evidence I can see.

If Google-bro can prove that this memo was, in fact, something he was expected and/or asked to do as part of his assigned duties, this becomes a very different scenario. Even then, however, we run into the next point.

Employer damage

If an employee does damage to the company in some tangible form, such as engaging in activites that harm the company’s reputation (which I would argue would be the case here), then the employer absolutely has cause to terminate. Nowhere in the employee handbook at most programming positions does it say that stealing an entire Office Depot’s worth of stationery supplies is grounds for termination, nor does it say that standing outside the company waving a sign that says “This company is run by a neo-Nazi” is grounds for termination. In fact, there’s a lot of things that a company doesn’t explicit say are grounds for termination, because anything that can be demonstrated to cause harm can be used as sufficient grounds.

Consider the sample corporate e-mail and Internet use policy here; it states that

All technology provided by [Company Name], including computer systems, communications networks, company-related work records and other information stored electronically, is the property of the company and not the employee. In general, use of the company’s technology systems and electronic communications should be job-related and not for personal convenience.

It’s entirely likely that if you work in this industry, you signed something similar at your place of business, and if you’re using your company laptop to write code for a side project, you’re exposing that side project to a potential IP-ownership claim from your company to that side project. Most companies choose to look the other way on most personal- or personal-ish use, largely because it’s hard to police and because they want to allow employees the freedom to use those resources in exchange for employees’ willingness to work a little extra beyond the standard 40 hours, but make no mistake—companies can, and will, assert that clause when it’s apparent that what’s being done harms them.

Such as this case.

Free speech (redux)

But the issue Google-bro raises about free speech does highlight something that every company needs to be aware of: psychological safety. Google, as is also true of many other Silicon Valley companies, is quite left-leaning in their internal political views. For those of us who are of similar minds, that’s comforting and feels natural. However, national statistics don’t lie; only about half of us actually feel that way.

Just as a left-leaning individual will feel a little out of place in a company that leans right, a right-leaning individual will feel similarly misunderstood in a company that leans left. And it should be obvious that there’s limits even in the case where one leans in the same direction as the company—if executives at Google started advocating the violent overthrow of capitalist governments in order to usher in a glorious new age of the proletariat, a significant number of Google employees would feel really uncomfortable.

This is perhaps the only place where Google needs to consider its actions terminating the Google-bro a little more carefully. Did they, by their action, lead those who “lean right” to feel more uncomfortable and unwelcome at work? If so, they’ve bought themselves a much deeper and more problematic issue than just what Google-bro’s misguided essay brought to their doorstep.

His point that “People generally have good intentions, but we all have biases which are invisible to us” is a reasonable one, actually, and one confirmed by numerous psychological experiments over the past several decades. He goes on to say

At Google, we talk so much about unconscious bias as it applies to race and gender, but we rarely discuss our moral biases.

Again, I do not work at Google so I cannot comment on the truth of this statement as it applies at Google, but it is a fair point to suggest that companies often do not openly discuss the “moral biases” (although that term is pretty ambiguous and never defined within the scope of his memo) amongst the employees. That seems a fair statement to make.

Political orientation is actually a result of deep moral preferences and thus biases.

This is where things start to go off the rails—political orientation is most often a combination of a large number of factors, and to suggest that they stem entirely (or even mostly) from “deep moral preferences” is fallacious. (Evidence: How many of the Christian Crusade voted for Donald Trump, a man who is divorced three times, each time to the woman he was cheating on his previous wife with? If we use that—or any of a number of other political examples—as the means by which to examine the statement, either the Christian Crusade clearly does not care about sexual fidelity in its elected leaders despite their protests to the contrary during the Clinton Administration, or the statement simply does not hold.)

Considering that the overwhelming majority of the social sciences, media, and Google lean left, we should critically examine these prejudices.

And this is where things really fall apart.

Much of the social sciences, while it does demonstrate strong political leanings, does not overly lean left. (Let’s also leave alone the idea that the “social sciences” is another wonderfully vague and ambiguous noun that never gets defined.) Because much social science research is conducted on college campuses, it is easy to assume that anyone teaching a sociology class is immediately a leftist, but in fact, if we extend the definition of “the social sciences” to include the practice of social science, such as sales, marketing or human resources, it’s pretty clear to see that there is no overt leaning anywhere. If, however, we are to assume that he means only the social science research, then it should also be an apples-to-apples comparison with media research and Google Research, which is obviously a touch nonsensical.

(Let’s also leave alone the idea that political philosophy—one of those “liberal arts” that I think he implies by the use of the term “social sciences”—is what’s being discussed every day on various websites and Twitter, and just as obviously not leaning in any particular direction.)

Neither does the media lean strongly in one direction—in fact, it’s long been known among those who’ve studied the political bias in newspapers over the last century that many/most reporters tend to lean left, while many/most editors tend to lean right. This was widely considered positive, as it leant a degree of balance to the newspapers’ reporting. Recent developments (over the last decade) in “fake news” and clearly-defined political bias (FOX News, MSNBC) have clearly upset that particular apple cart, but for the most part, traditionally high-ethic journalistic channels (New York Times, Washington Post, etc) have sought to maintain that balance, their Op-Ed sections notwithstanding.

If we broaden the term “media” to include “anybody who can stand up a website”, which obviously could potentially include sites like Breitbart and Stormfront, then it should be patently obvious that the political leaning of “the media” is actually not leaning in any one particular direction at all.

Falsification Doctrine

One of the best ways in which one can test one’s own hypothesis is to conduct what Karl Popper called “falsificationism”, whereby one actively seeks to disprove one’s assertion. To Popper, this was the critical distinction between science and pseudoscience:

Popper stresses the problem of demarcation—–distinguishing the scientific from the unscientific—–and makes falsifiability the demarcation criterion, such that what is unfalsifiable is classified as unscientific, and the practice of declaring an unfalsifiable theory to be scientifically true is pseudoscience. Falsifiability

For example, upon observing a white swan, an amateur at logic may suggest that “That swan is white”. That is a statement of fact, what Popper called a “singular existential statement”, since it makes a statement about the universe that can be verified by examining the evidence suggested. Upon observing a second and third and fourth swan, all of which are white, it may lead the amateur to conclude “All swans are white”. However, this is a statement that now suggests that there is no such thing as a black swan—proven incorrect as soon as a black swan is observed, which can only happen by continued observation and research. As a matter of fact, the only way that statement could ever be verified true is by finding all swans in the universe (including those not on planet Earth), observing their color, and documenting that they are, in fact, white. This is obviously a great deal of work, which most amateurs refuse to conduct. “I’ve observed four swans, that seems like a sufficient set of data points from which to conclude, so clearly my observations are reflective of the universe.” (Most statisticians would probably refute that point quite strongly.)

Instead of trying to observe all swans, taking the opposite approach—embracing a doctrine of falsification and seeking to observe or discover evidence that would render the statement incorrect—is often far more effective and efficient.

Conclusions

Google-bro’s memo is a perfect example of an opportunity to refuse to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Discarding the ridiculous elements of his memo, we are still left with the very relevant and important question of, “Do people at Google of right-leaning political viewpoints feel psychologically safe in airing their views out at company events and forums?” Note the deliberate phrasing of my question: if we assume that Google is a left-leaning company (which seems reasonable) and that the left-leaning individuals are thus more comfortable airing their views out, the question should be whether those of the opposite side of the political spectrum feel the same way.

This question, by the way, is one that should be asked at every company.

In this particular case, if Google wants to assert that their company culture is “psychologically safe”, then the right question for Google to ask is, “How many people here feel *un*safe rendering their views in an open forum?” Note that this doesn’t mean that anybody at Google should feel open about sharing views that are openly hostile or threatening; the company bears a direct responsibility to ensure that all of its employees are physically safe before considering their psychological safety. But they have a responsibility to ensure that the safety extends to both sides of the political spectrum.

And, bear in mind, that does not mean Google now has an obligation to ensure “equal air time” or “equal support” of all causes. As the executors of the company, Google executives are permitted to choose to pour company resources into whatever charitable or political causes they feel best benefit the company. In many cases, that means that firms will make campaign contributions to the electoral campaigns of candidates from both sides simultaneously, for example.