Google recently was in news for letting go of an employee who had posted an internal memo, explaining his views on the company’s policy to promote “gender diversity” initiatives to have a gendered balanced work force. Referring to women and men having different “biological capabilities” the Google engineer used the internal memo to criticize Google’s internal policy of monitoring and regulating conservative opinions within the workplace, a part of a greater initiative to achieve an equitable gender representation in its workforce. As the news of this internal memo spread like wild fire, the silicon valley finds itself in the middle of a gender diversity row yet again. Google has been one of the most vocal companies to support and promote a gender equitable workforce. Calling such initiatives “Ideological Echo Chambers”, the memo questioned the viability of such initiatives. Google inturn responded by firing the engineer, having found him guilty of breaking Google’s Code of Conduct.
Aiming to remove workplace constraints, Google’s corporate culture has focused to create an open and collaborative culture, while also pushing for a more gender diverse workforce. It often becomes a challenging task to balance the two. Especially in an industry plagued with both, the harbouring of harmful gender perceptions and an obsession to stifle opposing voices to avoid a PR crisis. Although Google, like many of the big Silicon Valley start-ups, has been in the middle of complaints on having a white-male skewed workforce, they have tried to address the problem. Its initiatives to target young female tech graduates and create robust talent pipelines to attract the best minds of all genders have helped it improve its numbers. But a lot more still needs to be done. And firing people who raise questions about the efficacy of a company’s initiative is often not the best way to ensure things improve for the better. While both sides feel they did the right thing, the problem of unequal gender representation and warped views on a gender still remain unaffected by this move.
The larger issue at hand
Google’s response points towards a two-fold problem, one that is reflective of larger societal debates within the United States and many parts of today's globalized world. A problem of warped views on gender which is tempered by an excessive reliance on censorship of views to streamline “acceptable” beliefs.
The problem with a lot of gender diversity and equality initiatives within companies has been that most today have become a top to bottom approach where meeting the required numbers become more important bringing a cultural change that challenges unconscious biases and seeks to engage its employees with differing views, rather than fire employees who call the diversity initiatives as “echo chambers”. Firing a person for writing a memo might just be the only resort left with a company like Google; a company applauded for it open culture and healthy people practices. But by putting a lid on alternate voices doesn’t help much in removing what is a deep rooted systemic problem of modern day corporations.
This is not to say that what one believes to be right should be so in real life as well. Gender based discrimination is a fact. People still have strong gender preferences when it comes to what work is suitable for which gender. Traditional talent pipelines have been always dominated by men. This has been acuter in relation to tech companies. From board rooms to entree level employees, companies have identified the need to invest in creating and executing diversity initiatives. There has been a documented need for companies to intervene and create a conducive, bias free workforce which stops women employees leaving the workforce at junior and mid-level management positions. In case of India, The Gender Diversity Benchmark for Asia report concludes that India has the smallest percentage of women in the total workforce (among China, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, and Singapore) and the largest pipeline leak occurring earliest in women’s careers— between middle and senior-level positions (48% decrease). Indian women are giving up their careers much sooner than professional women in other Asian countries.
But reprimanding voices that that question the effectiveness of diversity initiatives often leads to employees and managers superficially agreeing to create a gender neutral workspace while still holding warped opinions close to their hearts. A strong policing of such views often leads to problems of diversity and gender discrimination being swept under the rug. Although such memos become radioactive and HR professionals often choose to deal with such instances swiftly, a larger conversation within the HR community on how to effectively deal with gender related workforce issues is a necessary step forward. This often begins by accepting there exist altering opinions but to engage them becomes more important than banning them. Or else companies would find someone else putting up a similar memo in the near future.