Google Memo Prompts Reactions From Diversity Leaders

Despite the unpopular views expressed in James Damore’s now-infamous diversity memo, there are takeaways that could help corporate diversity and inclusion programs.
Google diversity

James Damore, previously an engineer at Google, made waves earlier this month by circulating a memo about how to improve the company’s diversity and inclusion initiatives, while also arguing that biological differences partly explained why there were fewer women than men in tech and corporate leadership in general. He wrote that people disagreeing with Google executives’ views feel they can’t speak about their own.

“Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” the memo Damore wrote, says, “our culture of shaming and misrepresentation is disrespectful and unaccepting of anyone outside its echo chamber.” While some of his former colleagues agree with him, they’re not likely to speak up in a similar fashion, out of fear of losing their jobs, a point that Damore made in his memo that ultimately came true.

Google fired Damore, stating that the basis was on him advancing incorrect assumptions about gender.

Still, diversity experts say his firing shouldn’t be the end of the conversation he started, however uncomfortable it might be for those who don’t share his point of view.

“The ripple effect of what Google did is those people go underground,” said Jennifer Brown, founder and CEO of Jennifer Brown Consulting LLC, a strategic leadership, diversity and inclusion and workplace consulting firm based in New York City. However, talking about the issues at hand are important in improving workplace diversity.

“The firing and the decision to do that shouldn’t be the end of the dialogue about the issues and strong reaction to the Google memo that happened on both sides,” she said.

Valid and Vapid Points

If certain groups — conservatives, in Damore’s case — feel alienated in these conversations, then business leaders should be curious about that, Brown said.

“What Google did is effectively what I see almost all other companies doing,” Brown said. “It’s a fundamental struggle and conundrum that’s faced by every diversity officer is the reminder that there are people who believe differently.” And when someone does speak up expressing an opposing view, the typical response is a business-focused argument that the talent demographics should reflect their marketplace to succeed.

Diverse workers often leave companies at higher rates. An investment in these workers could lead to a more diverse workplace that creates better products for their clients because the workers better understand customer needs. It’s a bottom-line, innovation and productivity argument, Brown said.

RELATED: Google Diversity Memo Fallout Shows Leaders Face Tough Balancing Act

Damore also took issue with “making Unconscious Bias training mandatory.” However, “mandatory is what I always recommend,” said Sharon Jones, CEO of Jones Diversity Inc., a diversity and inclusion consulting and training firm based in New York City. She explained that it’s no different than other corporate training that employees need to succeed and best serve the business.

There’s an effort to put forward company policies and values in diversity programs. “If you’re not aligned with the company’s policies and values, that might not be the best company for you,” Jones said.

Affinity Group Gripes 

Damore listed in his suggestions for Google’s diversity programs that they “stop restricting programs and classes to certain genders or races.” However, experts say it’s a best practice among diversity and inclusion initiatives to have affinity groups.

Underrepresented groups in the workplace are the ones with the least access to essential components to success, thus these groups provide targeted training and support for recruiting more people like those in the group. Common affinity groups include ones for women, LGBTQ workers, older workers and parents, among others. “Every one of them is designed to create a more inclusive culture and one where everyone feels valued and can be engaged,” Jones said.

Brown echoed similar support for affinity groups, adding that she’s surprised by how often women’s groups lack a strategy around engaging men. She said companies potentially need men’s affinity groups to facilitate discussion about diversity in the workplace.

This would not be a men’s group simply because a women’s group exists, but rather one that is in the spirit of providing a safe, confidential space for men talking to other men that’s facilitated effectively, with the mission of exploring how we understand the conversation about diversity and inclusion, Brown said.

Men in this context could therefore discuss where they fit in the conversation about diversity, as well as their feelings and doubts about why it’s important. If Google had a similar groups, Damore could have discussed his qualms there, rather than facing the process that played out.

Jones said she isn’t opposed to this idea of forming corporate affinity groups for men, though she suggested having ally groups in affinity groups as a way to expand them. Therefore, some conversations would be private for those who share the identity of the group because they need a safe space to talk, but there would be other ways to discuss the issues in the larger group that includes allies.

“You change the framework in people’s mind that you expand their knowledge of people who are different,” Jones said.

What Will This Memo Change?

“Whatever your diversity outreaches are, they should be constantly questioned if they’re actually working,” said Michael Bronski, professor of the practice in activism and media at Harvard University. An ever-changing cast of employees, social situations and events will mean diversity efforts are always in flux.

“We have to keep learning from where we went wrong or right before,” Bronski said, adding that Damore’s memo could be a good building block for that, but it’s not happening right away.

To move toward a more inclusive workplace, diversity trainers face significant challenges. Brown said she agrees with Damore’s point that progressives in the corporate world have little tolerance for opposing views. In the end, companies have a job to do, which is getting products and services to market, while pleasing shareholders.

As a result, “management is going to squelch things that they view as maybe opening up a Pandora’s box,” Brown said. The easier choice for business leaders is to focus on the company and quiet those who don’t fall in line.

However, “our solution cannot be to reject and ignore and deny diversity points,” Brown added. Facilitating difficult conversations about diversity is important, but it is a time- and labor-intensive process. Diversity trainers can help with those conversations, but they’re expected to perform more services and cover more topics in less and less time, Brown said. Off-the-shelf programs are less effective than ones built specifically for a company’s unique history and culture.

Brown said she’s not sure the modern workplace is set up to optimally handle these honest, painful dialogues, but that they are necessary to overcoming diversity and inclusion issues.

Lauren Dixon is an associate editor at Talent Economy. To comment, email editor@talenteconomy.io.