Gender Bias Scandals in Silicon Valley Signal Greater Need for Diversity

By Dinah Brin Aug 9, 2017
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​An engineer fired by Alphabet Inc.'s Google for advancing stereotypes about women in a memo that went viral over the weekend highlights the need for HR to be more vigilant about workplace diversity and sexual harassment, experts said.

The 10-page manifesto criticized Google's diversity efforts and blamed women's psychological and biological differences for their inability to succeed. The memo, "Google's Ideological Echo Chamber," created a firestorm online.

James Damore, who e-mailed 40,000 Google colleagues the note on Friday, reportedly confirmed his firing in an e-mail. He said he was terminated for "perpetuating gender stereotypes" and is "currently exploring all possible legal remedies." 

In a memo to employees Monday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai wrote that Damore's memo "violate[s] our Code of Conduct and cross[es] the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace."

The controversy comes amid Google's legal fight against the U.S. Department of Labor, which alleges it unlawfully underpays women—something Google denies—even as the company refuses to release wage data that could prove otherwise, as SHRM Online reported recently.

The release of the memo, experts said, highlights an even greater need for HR to encourage diversity in the male-dominated tech industry. Especially since, some say, Silicon Valley companies have overlooked gender bias and sexual discrimination, only taking action when someone has filed a lawsuit or posted something online that highlighted misbehavior—and the news about it has gone viral.

Fighting Sexual Harassment

Google isn't alone among high-profile companies attempting to address sexual harassment in the workplace. In the past year, Uber, Fox News and Silicon Valley venture firm Binary Capital, among others, have been ensnared in toxic publicity, investor backlash or legal troubles surrounding allegations of harassment—and in some cases, discrimination.

With the Internet providing a platform for exposure and public outrage, victims may have more power than ever to make harassers face consequences—and to generate embarrassment, or worse, for their companies.

"That to me is such a huge change in dynamic," said management-side employment lawyer Mark Kluger of Florham Park, N.J.-based Kluger Healey LLC. "The power of social media has changed the way these cases go."

Google certainly learned this lesson as well, as thousands disparaged Damore's comments on Twitter.

For example, Canadian Arlene Dickinson, a managing partner with District Ventures Capital, tweeted on Monday, "It's not that women are incompetent. It's that some men are nincompoops."

"While expressing personal views is the bedrock of a free society, arguing that women are less suited to be engineers because of biological reasons is deeply flawed logic and corrosive to the ideals of equality," said Jocelyn DeGance Graham, founder of Cloud-NOW.org, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that champions women in technology.

Diversity Training Matters

Citing customer boycotts, Brian Kropp, HR practice leader at CEB (now Gartner), said "employees are able to go public with this information to a greater degree than ever before."

As a result, Kluger adds, companies are quickly settling allegations of wrongdoing. "Those being accused are saying, 'Forget it, don't want to fight, not going to court, don't even want it played out in the court of public opinion.' "

Kluger said he advises clients to provide harassment training for managers so "when they talk to their employees they have to talk to them in a manner that they wouldn't mind hearing replayed in front of a jury or their spouses or anyone whom they respect."

He said he has seen a surge in demand for training since former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson sued her now-deceased ex-boss Roger Ailes last summer for sexual harassment; 21st Century Fox settled the lawsuit for $20 million.

HR consultant Jacquelyn Thorp, SHRM-SCP, CEO of Train Me Today of Murrieta, Calif., has doubled the number of anti-harassment classes she conducts since 2013.

"When we do training, we can tell immediately what kind of company we are in by the attitudes of [the] president and the HR person," she said, adding that prevention must start at the top.

"The president has to believe that sexual harassment is not OK. Companies need to hire credentialed, qualified human resource professionals that know how to handle reports of sexual harassment, how to train supervisors to take appropriate corrective action … and how to stop the harasser," Thorp said.

[SHRM members-only platform: Discuss this article on SHRM Connect]

"Unless organizations are willing to spend significant budget and time on changing the culture, and to publicly reward and punish employees for the right or wrong behavior, it is unlikely that the culture will change," Kropp said.

Don't Retain 'Smart Jerks'

Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick resigned in June amid reports of a company culture that tolerated sexual harassment, bullying, discrimination and retaliation. A blog post by a female engineer detailing her experiences during her year at Uber led the company to investigate 215 employee complaints.

"She wasn't suing anybody, she didn't go to the media. She posted something on a blog complaining about the culture, so that in itself was different—the fact that that was the trigger," Kluger said.

After the investigation led Uber to fire 20 people, a rowdy, profanity-infused e-mail from Kalanick to employees outlining rules for sex and partying at a 2013 company celebration was leaked to the news media.

"That makes it clear that the guy at the top is kind of creating this frat boy culture," Kluger said.

HR consultant Patty Woolcock, executive director of the California Strategic Human Resource Partnership, said startups may think they'll hire good HR people after they've grown, but sometimes "that's a little too late. Getting it right to begin with would have been so much easier."

As for misbehaving tech geniuses who seem indispensable, "you should have no tolerance for the smart jerks who mistreat people," Woolcock said. "The people who have such unique skills [that] you can't do without them are few and far between."

Silicon Valley venture firm Binary Capital appeared to implode swiftly in June, per news accounts, amid female entrepreneurs' allegations that co-founder Justin Caldbeck made unwanted sexual advances when they sought investments or advice.

The Information reported the allegations on June 22. Caldbeck had resigned by the time The New York Times ran a June 30 story about various venture capitalists' sexual harassment of tech industry women.

Dave McClure, 500 Startups founder, resigned, apologized and called himself a "creep" following the Times report, in which the firm cited his "inappropriate behavior with women in the tech community."

Changing culture can be tough. Kalanick has received support and praise from tech industry men and women. BuzzFeed News reported that Uber managers asked employees to sign a petition calling for his return, and a Quartz reporter wrote that Kalanick's rule-breaking personality "made Uber great."

Corporate adviser Mark Lipton, author of Mean Men: The Perversion of America's Self-Made Man (Voussoir Press, 2017), dismissed such arguments.

"Continuing to deify the Kalanicks of the start-up world will not bring us better leaders," he blogged. "It just perpetuates the status quo." 

On Tuesday, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange offered ex-Googler Damore a job, tweeting, "Censorship is for losers. @WikiLeaks is offering a job to fired Google engineer James Damore."

"Women & men deserve respect. That includes not firing them for politely expressing ideas but rather arguing back." Damore has not responded publicly on whether or not he will accept the job offer.

Freelance writer Dinah Wisenberg Brin covers HR, entrepreneurship, health and logistics from Philadelphia, Pa. 

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