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Google Scrambles to Avoid PR Crisis After Internal Memo Goes Viral

Part of Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. (Niharb / CC 2.0)

The internet is an uproar after a controversial memo sent out by former Google engineer James Damore leaked late last Friday, putting Google executives in a bind and raising questions about freedom of speech and gender diversity in the tech industry.

The 10-page memo, which some Google insiders have jokingly referred to as a “manifesto,” was posted to an internal message board, and went viral both within and outside the company on Friday and Saturday. The memo made a large number of problematic claims, writes Wired:

The document cited purported principles of evolutionary psychology to argue that women make up only 20 percent of Google’s technical staff because they are more interested in people than in ideas, which the author considers an obstacle to being a good engineer. The author, James Damore, said Google’s liberal leanings and emphasis on training around “unconscious bias” have created an ideological echo chamber that makes it difficult to discuss these issues openly inside the company.

Damore also said the company makes it difficult to dissent from “Google’s left bias” and “politically correct monoculture,” and criticized Google for offering mentoring and other opportunities to employees based on gender and race.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai reportedly cut his vacation short to return to the company’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters after the memo’s leak—and Damore was subsequently fired.

Damore told Breitbart via email that he’d been fired for “perpetuating gender stereotypes.”

According to Pichai, Damore was fired for violating the company’s “Code of Conduct.” Pichai adds that Damore crossed the line “by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.”

Pichai also responded to the incident by sending a note to Google employees on Monday night:

The memo has clearly impacted our co-workers, some of whom are hurting and feel judged based on their gender. Our co-workers shouldn’t have to worry that each time they open their mouths to speak in a meeting, they have to prove that they are not like the memo states, being “agreeable” rather than “assertive,” showing a “lower stress tolerance,” or being “neurotic.”

Employees have since broken the company’s confidentiality agreement by criticizing Pichai and his memo on social media, Wired says.

Nicole Sanchez, the recently departed head of diversity at GitHub, believes the issue is a complex one. “I guarantee this is the struggle they have inside the company: People who want to come out really strong against this manifesto and say there isn’t a place for this at Google” while still maintaining “that an opinion shouldn’t jeopardize your job,” she told Wired.

In an email to The New York Times, Damore stated he is likely to pursue legal action. “I have a legal right to express my concerns about the terms and conditions of my working environment and to bring up potentially illegal behavior, which is what my document does,” he said.

Fortune explains that Damore will be fighting an uphill, but not impossible, battle:

Roy Gutterman, a free speech authority at Syracuse University, noted that the traditional purpose of anti-discrimination laws have been to protect historically disadvantaged groups, not white men. This is one reason he describes Damore’s chance for success as an “uphill battle.”

Another law professor, who agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity because he had worked for Silicon Valley companies, described the case as difficult but not impossible. He predicted a complaint brought by Damore would survive a motion to dismiss “barely.”

Finally, if Damore does decide to sue, it’s likely the case would settle instead of going to trial. That’s because the entire episode has proved a PR nightmare for Google—first as a result of the memo, which led many to accuse Google of institutional sexism, and then as a result of the company’s decision to fire Damore, which others decried as an assault on free speech. It’s a safe bet the company would like to sweep this under the rug as soon as possible.

The memo comes during a particularly fraught time for tech companies, many of which are currently dealing with free speech and diversity issues. Google itself is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor, which has found evidence of “systemic compensation disparities against women pretty much across the entire workforce.”

In the meantime, Pichai has said that Google will hold an all-hands meeting on Thursday to discuss the matter.

Emily Wells
​Emily Wells is an Ear to the Ground blogger at Truthdig. As a journalist, she began as a crime reporter at the Pulitzer-winning daily newspaper, The Press-Enterprise...
Emily Wells

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