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Technology

Google fires employee who penned controversial memo on women and tech

In a memo to employees, CEO Sundar Pichai said the employee who penned a controversial memo about how women had biological issues that prevented them from being as successful as men in tech had violated its Code of Conduct and that the post had crossed “the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.”

He added: “To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.”

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Pichai’s wording appears to indicate the employee is likely be fired. Google spokesperson said the company would not confirm any firing, but some sources confirmed to Recode the action was going to take place.

[UPDATE: Sources told Recode that the employee has indeed been fired, but Google said it would not comment on individual employees.]

Once it does happen, the move is sure to attract a firestorm of criticism on both sides, putting the search giant in the crosshairs of a wider debate about gender issues taking place in Silicon Valley and across the country.

The employee memo — which was up for days without action by the company — went viral within the search giant’s internal discussion boards this weekend, with some decrying it and others defending it. Sources said Google’s top execs have been struggling with how to deal with it and the fallout, trying to decide if its troubling content crossed a line.

Apparently, it did. In a memo to employees titled “Our words matter,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai said that the employee — who has been named on Twitter, although his identity could not be verified — had violated its code of conduct. (I am not publishing his name, because he — and others who disagree with him — have been threatened with violence online.

Had the employee not belittled women’s skills, I assume, he would not have been fired.

That said, Pichai also noted the memo did raise some important issues, such as the need for more willingness to include more points of view at the company, including more conservative ones.

Wrote Pichai:

“First, let me say that we strongly support the right of Googlers to express themselves, and much of what was in that memo is fair to debate, regardless of whether a vast majority of Googlers disagree with it. However, portions of the memo violate our Code of Conduct and cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace. Our job is to build great products for users that make a difference in their lives. To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK. It is contrary to our basic values and our Code of Conduct, which expects ‘each Googler to do their utmost to create a workplace culture that is free of harassment, intimidation, bias and unlawful discrimination.'”

It’s not an easy line to walk. But the employee penned a piece he sent across the company that said, among other things, that women just can’t do tech.

Titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” it begins promisingly enough:

“I value diversity and inclusion, am not denying that sexism exists, and don’t endorse using stereotypes. When addressing the gap in representation in the population, we need to look at population level differences in distributions. If we can’t have an honest discussion about this, then we can never truly solve the problem.”

But then, in what is pretty much the main premise, he went on in detail: “I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership.”

What followed was a list of those differences, including a claim that women were more social and artistic and could not take the stress of high-pressure jobs. Hence, neuroticism, or higher anxiety and lower stress tolerance.

The author also claimed that he had no voice, even after penning a 3,000-word memo that he was able to send companywide and also was read by millions more. “Psychological safety is built on mutual respect and acceptance, but unfortunately our culture of shaming and misrepresentation is disrespectful and unaccepting of anyone outside its echo chamber,” he wrote.

Sources said the memo has caused a massive debate to go on inside Google, which has devolved in ways not unlike those taking place across the country. “It has been really toxic,” said one person at Google. “It’s a microcosm of America.”

But what is also true is that free speech is allowed when it comes to the government, but not within companies. In, fact, it is common for people to lose their jobs for making sexist and racist remarks.

Here is the Pichai memo in total:

From: Sundar

Subject: Our words matter

This has been a very difficult few days. I wanted to provide an update on the memo that was circulated over this past week.

First, let me say that we strongly support the right of Googlers to express themselves, and much of what was in that memo is fair to debate, regardless of whether a vast majority of Googlers disagree with it. However, portions of the memo violate our Code of Conduct and cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace. Our job is to build great products for users that make a difference in their lives. To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK. It is contrary to our basic values and our Code of Conduct, which expects “each Googler to do their utmost to create a workplace culture that is free of harassment, intimidation, bias and unlawful discrimination.”

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.”

At the same time, there are co-workers who are questioning whether they can safely express their views in the workplace (especially those with a minority viewpoint). They too feel under threat, and that is also not OK. People must feel free to express dissent. So to be clear again, many points raised in the memo — such as the portions criticizing Google’s trainings, questioning the role of ideology in the workplace, and debating whether programs for women and underserved groups are sufficiently open to all — are important topics. The author had a right to express their views on those topics — we encourage an environment in which people can do this and it remains our policy to not take action against anyone for prompting these discussions.

The past few days have been very difficult for many at the company, and we need to find a way to debate issues on which we might disagree — while doing so in line with our Code of Conduct. I’d encourage each of you to make an effort over the coming days to reach out to those who might have different perspectives from your own. I will be doing the same.

I have been on work related travel in Africa and Europe the past couple of weeks and had just started my family vacation here this week. I have decided to return tomorrow as clearly there’s a lot more to discuss as a group — including how we create a more inclusive environment for all.

So please join me, along with members of the leadership team at a town hall on Thursday. Check your calendar soon for details.

— Sundar

By Kara Swisher, Re/code.net.

CNBC’s parent NBCUniversal is an investor in Recode’s parent Vox, and the companies have a content-sharing arrangement.

Source: Tech CNBC
Google fires employee who penned controversial memo on women and tech

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