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Google Damore Incident: Diversity of Ideas or Conformity?

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Google Damore Incident: Diversity of Ideas or Conformity?

Postby Nate W. » Wed Aug 16, 2017 9:37 am

Dear Forum,

Last week a Google engineer (with a biology degree from Harvard) wrote a memo on diversity and was subsequently fired. Apparently, Google has taken a strong position on promoting a culture of openness of ideas and creating opportunities for women. In an effort to explain why there aren't many women in STEM professionals and specifically why there aren't more women working at Google, this engineer offered a sociological and biological explanation for this. Based on what I read, it appears James Damore was just trying to help since Google has made diversity a cultural mission of its organization. However, maybe Google's policies and culture have created a workplace that truly cherishes conformity and groupthink rather than an openness of ideas. As a scientist that has worked in many labs (academia and the private sector), our workplace always valued the openness of ideas because we knew this encouraged innovation and scientific progress. Based on my experiences: When you have a strong culture that values conformity of thought, this leads to workers living in a bubble that sugar coat problems or workers who are only focus on agreeing with everyone else to improve selfishly their relationships with other supervisors (i.e. to protect their jobs).

Maybe this incident is a sign of the times. In the last decade, I have noticed that employers want to develop onerous HR policies, or even initiate legislation, to control the behavior of its employees. Further, some managers are even more likely to fire people over minor disagreements. Whereas in the past, these behaviors would have been forgivable. Have we in the US as a society have become more mean spirited and less forgiving when managing others or have managers developed an inability not to take disagreements personally rather than rationally think about what was said or done. Isn't listening to a diversity of opinions and creating a culture where those ideas can be freely expressed important in developing a truly innovative lab or company?

Some articles written about this incident questioned whether James had a right to free speech. This incident raises many questions about the influence of culture in an organization and being careful about what you say at work. So in closing, CEO Sundar Pichal said "People must feel free to express dissent"; has this incident and Google's culture achieved this diversity of ideas or only bred a culture where there is a conformity of ideas which is the antithesis of what is needed for innovation?

PS: There is probably a simpler explanation for this. On average, there are fewer women who are trained in STEM programs as scientists or engineers. I believe this has been documented.

References:

http://money.cnn.com/2017/08/07/technol ... index.html

Memo:

http://gizmodo.com/exclusive-heres-the- ... 1797564320

Pro and Con Viewpoints:

https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/ ... 564400001/

http://www.businessinsider.com/female-e ... emo-2017-8

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/open-let ... sterling-1
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Re: Google Damore Incident: Diversity of Ideas or Conformity?

Postby Rich Lemert » Wed Aug 16, 2017 2:38 pm

The "right to free speech" argument is a red herring! Mr. Damore was not prevented from making his remarks, nor is he prevented from doing so now.

Just because someone has the right to say what they want (within limits), however, doesn't place any obligation on anyone else to support those words. In fact, telling Google that they CAN'T fire Mr. Damore could be considered violating their right to free association. The only issue is whether or not they followed due process.

Those that claim this is a 'free speech' issue need to remember that this right does not exist in a vacuum. It also comes with a requirement that one must accept responsibility for his or her words.
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Re: Google Damore Incident: Diversity of Ideas or Conformity?

Postby Steven Z. » Wed Aug 16, 2017 3:11 pm

I think it is a symptom of a larger and more widespread problem particularly on one side of the political spectrum of shutting down and attacking opposing view points rather than debating and tolerating differing opinions.

It is also especially ironic that Alphabet/Google trumpets diversity yet they cannot accept diverse viewpoints or opinions. That tells me they really do not understand the true meaning and value of diversity and are instead window dressing for various gender and racial special interest groups.
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Re: Google Damore Incident: Diversity of Ideas or Conformity?

Postby Nate W. » Wed Aug 16, 2017 5:56 pm

Rich Lemert wrote:The "right to free speech" argument is a red herring! Mr. Damore was not prevented from making his remarks, nor is he prevented from doing so now.

Just because someone has the right to say what they want (within limits), however, doesn't place any obligation on anyone else to support those words. In fact, telling Google that they CAN'T fire Mr. Damore could be considered violating their right to free association. The only issue is whether or not they followed due process.

Those that claim this is a 'free speech' issue need to remember that this right does not exist in a vacuum. It also comes with a requirement that one must accept responsibility for his or her words.


According to reports, Google has made diversity a cultural mission of the organization and solicited ideas from its employees about this issue. Employees complained that they couldn't speak freely w/o sometime of punishment. Thus (if reports are true), shouldn't management be tolerant to different viewpoints w/o instilling a fear of reappraisal among its employees (i.e. losing your job). Yes, there can be a limit to one's right to voice your opinion given that your viewpoint is not overly offensive and bigoted (the memo seemed objective and measured; even though I disagreed with some points). But you also have weight that dissent can magically lead to some wonderful solutions. However, the problem comes when one takes other's views and ideas personally.

Think next time management asks for ideas do you think the rank and file will openly offer their ideas or just spoon feed their managers with what they want to hear and what is culturally accepted.

This is where I think the CEO went wrong because their policies on diversity will have the opposite effect of what is intended; a conformity of ideas because nobody will speak up or do so openly. This policy will eventually lead to groupthink. I am wondering now if Mr. Damore was really fired for releasing a controversial internal document to the public not because Google management really believed in the cause of diversity. Essentially, they were more interested in public relations. The official press releases about this were merely an appeasement to its customers if they disagreed with the memo.

Imagine if this was a lab and a bright scientist had a great idea that solved a technical problem leading to a product and others disagreed with that idea both scientifically and out of jealousy. In an environment with a strong cultural mission of diversity, like that at Google, this scientist might keep the idea to himself and never disclose it. I have seen this happen in academic labs; that's why you don't want to discourage the debate of ideas and you want foster an environment encourages the exchange of ideas even if there is dissention. Has Google accomplished this with their actions and can a strong culture be a counterproductive influence on profitability?


Rich, why do companies get involved in these social and political causes in the first place? They are a public company not an advocacy group for social causes.

Do you really think the board and stockholders really care more about this cause than shareholder and investor returns? Or is this just about public relations?

For employees in this type of situation, should they openly share their ideas if others disagree or just tell them what they want to hear and go along?

A free speech argument in favor of Google's actions:

http://www.baselinemag.com/blogs/did-go ... peech.html
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Re: Google Damore Incident: Diversity of Ideas or Conformity?

Postby Rich Lemert » Thu Aug 17, 2017 9:35 am

The argument that Google is demonstrating an intolerance of diversity of opinion by firing Mr. Damore Google is another red herring. He was fired because he embarrassed the company - and used company resources to do so.

Most managers I know will tolerate - and even encourage - lively debate, as long as it's kept within the organization. Once a decision has been made and a policy has been implemented, however, they expect everyone to support that decision one-hundred percent. The only exception is if new evidence presents itself, but even then you should raise the subject in private.

In many ways these arguments about how "unfair" Google is being remind me one of the ways the news media try to be "fair and balanced". They will carefully make sure that both sides of the argument get equal air-time or equal column-inches so that they aren't seen as favoring one side of the debate over the other. By doing this, however, they are lending the counter-argument an importance it doesn't deserve. Or do you feel that evolution vs. creationism, climate change, and the vaccine/autism debate are all still open questions?
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Re: Google Damore Incident: Diversity of Ideas or Conformity?

Postby PACN » Thu Aug 17, 2017 10:16 am

First off, this was not a disagreement about the best way to code. It was not a disgreement about science or even business. This is a guy who promoted the (discredited) idea that women and minorities are biologically inferior to men in tech. It was barely veiled animus and resentment. How do I know? Because he ignored huge amounts of research that have been done in the area of diversity in the workplace. Namely, that diverse teams are better at solving complex problems and that diverse companies outperform more homogeneous ones. See, for example, http://www.mckinsey.com/business-functi ... ty-matters and https://www.scientificamerican.com/arti ... s-smarter/. These are summaries; there are many more.

So not only was he wrong, he was offensive. There is little to no evidence that women are biologically worse at coding than men. There is tons of evidence that sexism in tech is real-- the experiences of actual women in tech. Suggesting that women are underrepresented in tech because less suited for programming biologically while ignoring other social factors that may play a role is sexist. Not only that, but he is promoting sexism in the workplace, something no employer is required (or encouraged) to tolerate.

Furthermore, his ability to work with women and minority employees is almost certain to be affected. As a woman, I wouldn't want to work on a team with him. That's a concern for his employer also. His bias against what he considers "female" traits such as being interested in people and having empathy also calls his qualifications into question. After the most entry level positions, everyone has to be able to work with and understand people. If he isn't able or willing to try to see others' perspectives (which this posting suggests he isn't), that's a problem for his job also.

If my employer asks what they can do to make my work more pleasant and I write a public screed about what jerks my bosses are, that's my opinion. I won't get arrested. I still have free speech-- but it has consequences. It's their right to fire me for doing so.
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Re: Google Damore Incident: Diversity of Ideas or Conformity?

Postby Nate W. » Sat Aug 19, 2017 4:59 pm

Rich Lemert wrote:The argument that Google is demonstrating an intolerance of diversity of opinion by firing Mr. Damore Google is another red herring. He was fired because he embarrassed the company - and used company resources to do so.

Most managers I know will tolerate - and even encourage - lively debate, as long as it's kept within the organization. Once a decision has been made and a policy has been implemented, however, they expect everyone to support that decision one-hundred percent. The only exception is if new evidence presents itself, but even then you should raise the subject in private.

In many ways these arguments about how "unfair" Google is being remind me one of the ways the news media try to be "fair and balanced". They will carefully make sure that both sides of the argument get equal air-time or equal column-inches so that they aren't seen as favoring one side of the debate over the other. By doing this, however, they are lending the counter-argument an importance it doesn't deserve. Or do you feel that evolution vs. creationism, climate change, and the vaccine/autism debate are all still open questions?


I agree with you that probably he was fired not for his thoughts but for the release of a company document without the permission of management or legal counsel. However, we don't know whether he was fired before or after the release of the memo. If he was fired before the release of the memo, then he was fired for his thoughts and probably his coworkers had a voice in this decision.

What amazes here is just how sensitize some people at Google are to this issue especially when the company asked its employees to contribute any ideas they had. I had read the memo twice and I don't see how or why this is a so offensive to some and rises to a offense that deserves being fired. I only had issue with two words choices. Honestly, I think he was trying explain why many women don't choose a career path in the sciences and engineering; not to denigrate women and their abilities. I have been asked this question by my students when I teach part time as an adjunct. Often I don't speak up because it is such a controversial issue.

Honestly, I think if this happened greater than 10 years ago, this memo would have been an non-issue for Mr. Damore. Today, employees feel more inclined to advocate for the firing of coworkers who they might disagree (or dissent) with over some trivial issues. What ever happened to just focus on your job and try to get along with everyone and anything else let it go.

My question to PACN and others:

1) Would you voice your ideas at work if you knew others might disagree, especially if the issue is work related or your employer asked you to voice your concerns?

2) If you were at Google and were upset by the memo, would you advocate with your supervisors to fire Mr. Damore? Why?

3) Why do you think employees are more sensitive to these social and political issues? (Marc Benioff, Salesforce)? Why should companies get involved in these issues (i.e. can't they be agnostic)?

4) Should an employee keep their opinions and believes a secret if their values are in disagreement with the culture of the company or their supervisor?

PACN: Thanks for the Scientific American article. Diversity of thought is essential for an innovative research setting. I have been fortunate to have academic supervisors who encourage the free exchange of ideas. But then have to adapt to a private sector job where that is discouraged; well is difficult.
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Re: Google Damore Incident: Diversity of Ideas or Conformity?

Postby E.K.L. » Sun Aug 20, 2017 2:09 am

1) I have done so in the past. Having worked in both academic and industry reseaech, it's easier to have a professional discussion about a problem (without resorting to people blaming) in the latter. In academia, the focus is heavy on individuality, which often leads to people taking criticism as a personal attack.
2) I'd take advantage of the company resources, e.g. ethics team.
3) I don't think employees are more sensitive; what I think is such a behaviour (posting rants against group X using company resouces) is disruptive behaviour. That's why companies should get involved. I don't have to like a person (and vice versa) to be able to work well with them, as long as both of us are professional about it.
4) Better question would be: why would you want to work for a compay, whose values you disagree with?

Btw, I'd disagree that academia is better at promoting free exchange of ideas. The structure of universities a bit too feudal for that, in my opinion.
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Re: Google Damore Incident: Diversity of Ideas or Conformity?

Postby Dave Jensen » Sun Aug 20, 2017 5:03 pm

Good comments, EKL -- totally agree with you,

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