Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Google’s Diversity Problems

Progressive cultural taboos have migrated from campus to business.

By The Editorial Board
The Wall Street Journal
August 9, 2017

Google professes a commitment to diversity, inclusion and openness, so there is no small irony that it now finds itself in the hot center of America’s diversity culture wars. The tech giant’s dismissal of a contrarian software engineer this week also raises deeper questions about the atmosphere of ideological conformity in corporate America.

Google computer scientist James Damore triggered the uproar when he published a memo last week blasting the search company’s “politically correct monoculture” and progressive gender policies. After his cri de coeur went viral, Google CEO Sundar Pichai fired Mr. Damore for violating the company’s code of conduct by “advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.”

Mr. Damore, who says several times that discrimination exists and is a problem, could have used an editor to soften his stridency and to fact-check some of his many pop-psychology claims about emotional differences between men and women. But even Mr. Pichai wrote that “much of what was in that memo is fair to debate,” and posts on Google’s internal messaging board support Mr. Damore for some of the issues he raised.

His main argument is that Google’s policies have created a conformist culture. Silencing alternative viewpoints, he says, “has created an ideological echo chamber where some ideas are too sacred to be honestly discussed.” He writes that “discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive and bad for business.” That, essentially, is Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s criticism of racial preferences.

Mr. Damore proposes steps Google could take to increase intellectual diversity, such as “stop alienating conservatives,” “confront Google’s biases,” “de-moralize diversity,” and “reconsider making Unconscious Bias training mandatory.”

To what extent Mr. Damore’s former colleagues would agree or disagree with any of this in the privacy of their cars on the way home is unknowable. But what got him tossed out the door were his musings on women in the workplace.

In a note to employees, Mr. Pichai wrote that “we strongly support the right of Googlers to express themselves,” but “to suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.” In other words, it’s OK to express views as long as they are not antithetical to Google’s political culture.

Mr. Pichai’s note sounds like an increasingly familiar form of legal cover. Mr. Damore doesn’t belong to a union, and private companies aren’t bound by the First Amendment, so Google was within its right to fire him. But before his firing, Mr. Damore had complained to the National Labor Relations Board about superiors “misrepresenting and shaming me.” Now he is arguing that his dismissal constitutes retaliation. This is a stretch, since the labor board’s purview doesn’t extend to individual workplace disputes. But Mr. Damore could still try to take Google to court.

Google’s lawyers, on the other hand, may have noted the Justice Department’s definition of sexual harassment as “activity which creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment for members of one sex.” Once female workers complained, Google may have felt it had a legal obligation to fire Mr. Damore.

The liability imperative doesn’t stop there. Google is under pressure from an Obama-era Labor Department investigation of its pay practices, which then-Labor Secretary Tom Perez initiated and the Trump Administration has continued. In April, Labor officials claimed they had uncovered “systemic compensation disparities” and “compelling evidence of very significant discrimination against women.” In this brave new legal world, a James Damore is collateral damage.

One irony, though, is that Google in its defense against the government has advanced one of Mr. Damore’s arguments—that gender disparities to the extent they exist are a result of factors unrelated to discrimination. As to the underlying reality: The American Enterprise Institute reports that more than 80% of computer science and engineering majors are men, but women receive about 60% of biology and 75% of psychology degrees. Enforcing gender parity by the numbers could inadvertently cause more discrimination.

Google’s leftwing biases are hardly news. Recall YouTube’s censorship last fall of PragerU’s conservative educational videos on topics such as university diversity and the Iraq war. The Google subsidiary deemed the videos “potentially objectionable.” Potentially?

The Damore firing underscores why so many don’t think Google should be trusted as an arbiter of content. Google enjoys a quasi-monopoly in search, which it uses to subordinate paid content to free media. Its algorithms are secret and supposedly aim to make information useful. Determining utility, however, invariably involves value judgments. So the question: Does Google deprioritize content it deems objectionable or antithetical to its values?

Many on the left are dismissing Mr. Damore as an alt-right nut. But the monolithic progressive culture incubated on college campuses clearly has spread to corporate America. The emergence of a backlash is no surprise.

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