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The Aftermath of “The Memo”: Revisiting The Topic of Diversity Issues in Silicon Valley

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Quite a while ago, I wrote a blog post about diversity issues in the valley. The motivation at the time was the slew of news stories about whether Marissa Mayer was being unfairly criticized because of her gender.  My point at the time was that there was indeed a giant diversity problem in the valley, but that its root cause was a lack of diversity of thought rather than anything else. Otherwise put, if one strives to surround oneself with very likeminded people, one automatically increases the probability of hiring / promoting / funding people of similar backgrounds, and to a lesser extent, ethnicity, gender, etc.

The number of things that can’t safely be questioned in the valley seems to expand each year.   The list is in fact quite diverse. For example, prior to the last presidential election,  the outcome could not be questioned (which in large part explains why none of the big tech companies failed to accurately predict the outcome, even with their troves of “big data.”)     The influence of the large valley companies on the thoughts, behaviors, and purchasing decisions of the average person can’t be questioned: it is understood to be self-evident (despite there being relatively scant objective evidence of it.)  The superiority of the tech companies over their counterparts in other industries is likewise self-evident, especially in areas such as innovation. Yet, over the years, one hears more and more about “innovations in business model” such as Uber or AirBnB in the tech business rather than groundbreaking technology innovations – the logical consequence of the vast majority of dollars in the valley being funneled into advertising-related applications and the fact that most large companies outside the valley couldn’t afford Uber-style business model innovations that come with $3B losses. Questioning any tenet of political correctness is also right out.

Which brings us to the topic of The Memo.   The Wall Street Journal rightly excoriated Google’s management for firing the 28-year old engineer who opined that there could be biological differences between the genders that accounted for the gender disparity among programmers.  The WSJ noted that in a recent response to a Department of Labor inquiry into whether Google was systematically underpaying women,  Google had itself made some of the same arguments that James Damore did with respect to the relative scarcity of female engineers in The Memo. A WSJ editorial worried aloud about the professional judgment of those who had so much power over information.

Oops.

Clearly Damore did not understand Google’s culture at all, or he would have never hit the “send” button.   Clearly Google’s senior management failed to comprehend the backlash that was sure to arise from firing Damore as opposed to any number of other less severe – and private – disciplinary actions that could have been taken, and which would have quelled any internal screams of tolerating gender discrimination.  But the failures were of very different kinds. Damore failed to understand that expressing a verboten opinion would not be tolerated by his employer. He was simply young and naive, failing to recognize that when you hear no divergent opinions, there’s probably a good reason for it.  Google’s senior management on the other hand failed to understand that independent judgment was still being exercised by many outside the valley, such as the good folks at the WSJ. Even worse, they failed to understand that in this day and age of social media, firing Damore created a first in the annals of business: a low-level, individual contributor employee gaining copious big media air play for writing a memo that exposed no giant bombshell of corporate malfeasance but yet globally damaged their brand.

So is there a diversity problem?  You bet there is.  But gender is the least of it.

 

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