Google’s firing of memo writer strikes nerve in Silicon Valley

Google logo on office building in Irvine California
The Google logo is pictured atop an office building in Irvine, California, U.S., August 7, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake

August 9, 2017

By David Ingram, Salvador Rodriguez and Heather Somerville

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – A Silicon Valley culture war pitting liberal-leaning tech firms against a small conservative cohort took on new intensity on Tuesday after Google fired a male engineer for a memo that decried the company’s commitment to hiring women.

Memo author James Damore, 28, received jeers, cheers and a couple of job offers, while the debate raged on social media and some tech firms took steps to prevent similar episodes from embroiling their companies.

Damore confirmed his dismissal from Alphabet Inc’s Google on Monday, after he wrote a 10-page memo that said the company was hostile to conservative viewpoints and that women on average have more neuroticism.

Many in Silicon Valley found his views, which argued that men in general may be biologically more suited to coding jobs than women, offensive and destructive. The manifesto was embraced by some, particularly on the political right, who branded him a brave truth-teller.

The episode recalled past examples of the wide gulf between U.S. conservative activists and the tech sector.

In 2014, Brendan Eich was forced out as Mozilla’s chief executive after his opposition to gay marriage became public. Most technology executives held the opposite view, and tech companies often gave benefits to same-sex couples well before gay marriage was legalized.

“Anyone who deviates from the talking points of the liberal left is shunned, shamed and forced out,” Andrew Torba, chief executive of the social network Gab, said in an interview.

Torba, whose company is popular among conservatives, said Damore could work for him.

WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange, whose group released hacked emails that helped the campaign of Republican U.S. President Donald Trump, also offered Damore a job, writing on Twitter that “censorship is for losers.”

Firing Damore was too extreme and Google should have put him through training instead, said Aaron Ginn, co-founder of the Lincoln Network, a group of libertarian-leaning tech workers and investors.

“You’re going to make him a martyr. In this hyper-tribal political day we are in, I think you’d want to try to avoid making him a martyr,” Ginn said.

Intense political feelings recently divided two board members of Facebook Inc, the New York Times reported on Tuesday. Last August, Reed Hastings, chief executive of Netflix Inc, warned investor Peter Thiel in an email that Thiel’s support for Trump showed “catastrophically bad judgment,” the newspaper reported.

The outcome of that dispute is not known. Hastings and Thiel remain on Facebook’s board. Facebook declined to comment.

More generally, Silicon Valley tech companies have been under mounting criticism for not doing enough to promote gender equality and stamp out sexual harassment.

Claims of persistent sexual harassment in the ranks of Uber Technologies Inc [UBER.UL] and of several venture capital firms have led to management shake-ups.

The U.S. Labor Department is investigating Google to see whether the firm has unlawfully paid women less than men. Google denies that it does.

CODES OF CONDUCT

Google, which has used the motto “Don’t be evil,” received accolades from many quarters for treating Damore’s memo as a threat to its corporate culture.

“What he wrote is extremely toxic to the tech community we are trying to support. He’s categorizing us in a way that makes us seem weak or incompetent,” said Adriana Gascoigne, founder of the San Francisco nonprofit Girls in Tech.

Josh Reeves, chief executive at Gusto, a software company, said he expected the topic would come up at its all-staff meeting on Wednesday.

Gusto’s code of conduct “specifically prohibits a memo like Damore’s,” Reeves said, if the memo would be offensive to individuals in a protected group.

Damore, who could not be reached for comment on Tuesday, said in an email to Reuters on Monday that he was exploring a possible legal challenge to his dismissal.

His case would likely be weak, employment lawyers said, and some lawyers said Google could have faced lawsuits if it had not acted against him.

Google said it could not talk about individual employee cases.

U.S. companies have broad latitude to restrict the speech of employees in private workplaces, where First Amendment protections against government censorship do not apply.

Damore’s title at Google was software engineer and he had worked at the company since December 2013, according to a profile on LinkedIn.

The LinkedIn page also says Damore received a PhD in systems biology from Harvard University in 2013. Harvard said on Tuesday he completed a master’s degree in the subject, not a PhD.

Industry experts note that in the early days of tech it was mostly women who held the then-unglamorous jobs of coding. But as the value of top-notch programming became clear, men came to dominate the field.

Other tech companies on Tuesday were closely watching the controversy at Google unfold, and grateful they were not the ones caught in another debate over gender and diversity.

“Every large organization has a James Damore – but at tech companies, they’re more liberated to share their personal views,” an executive at one major Silicon Valley firm said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Tech firms have an abundance of “smart, confident people who think they have an obligation to share their wisdom with their coworkers,” the executive said.

(Reporting by David Ingram, Salvador Rodriguez and Heather Somerville in San Francisco; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen, Taylor Harris and Gabriella Borter in New York and Dustin Volz and Jonathan Weber in San Francisco; Editing by Bernard Orr and Lisa Shumaker)

  • Localdude

    I find it offensive that this article [a Reuters cut & paste] points out from the start that the memo writer is male. I find it to be ‘microaggresive’ as well as sexist. I would like to enjoin in a class action suit against Reuters & Google….lol….right – WHO CARES. Nobody….thus is my ‘feelings’ & belief toward all who hold these discriminatory, PC, group think ideologies. I cannot believe how moronic otherwise bright people are in these institutions. If its not just plain idiotic, its a con game. ‘a sucker is born every minute’ as the old saying goes.

  • margievarner

    GOOGLE CAN DISCRIMINATE AGAINST YOU AND MAKE THE WORKPLACE POLITICAL OPPRESSIVE BUT YOU HAVE TO ACT LIKE A BRAVE LITTLE SOLDIER AND NOT FIGHT BACK THESE PEOPLE ARE TRULY NOT SMART AS THEY THINK. THERE IS ONE AREA THAT I THINK MOST WOMEN COULDN’T HANDLE AND THAT IS BEING IN BATTLE AND SEEING AND DOING ATROCITIES.

  • Biform25

    When I go to work, I work, I have no time to whine.
    I think both sides are wrong in this fiasco.

  • Kyle Smith

    ” . . he had effectively created a hostile work environment for women.” Really? By saying he thinks men are more suited for tech jobs? Really? That is insane.

  • Patty Rogers

    We are a don’t ask don’t tell nation. Don’t let free speech be a dying thing, like in England!

  • Bill Smoothma

    My wife owns a company. Does this mean she gets to fire all the democrats for being unaware and compliant terrorist supporters? If so, I think it may be hard for any “keep the people ignorant” to find work, other than at google.

  • stevens123

    If he had stated transgender people were biologically suited for coding he would have been promoted.

    The lesson here is keep your political views to yourself. Don’t bring them to the office. He would have a much stronger case had he not circulating the memo his place of work.

    • nekronic

      Agreed it is inadvisable to express your political views at work – especially if they are conservative. But leftist views pervade the workplace in subtle ways; assumed “truths,” and the tacit undertow of the leftist narrative.

      • margievarner

        I WORKED FOR THE GOV AND YOU ARE RIGHT.THE LEFT’S VIEWS WANT YOU TO BELIEVE THEY ARE PURE.

    • margievarner

      NO WE HAVE TO FIGHT BACK AND SHOW THESE COMPANIES FOR WHO THEY REALLY ARE. HOPE HE WINS.

  • dianecee

    Why do people use Google? Their search engine is nothing more than a list of advertisers. I scrubbed that company and their forced recognition from any and all electronic equipment that I own. All Americans should be doing the same.

    • Bill Smoothma

      I use duckduckgo and so should anybody that loves America over cia creature comforts.

      • nekronic

        Been using duckduckgo since its inception because Google is a) too nosy, and b) too leftist – deliberately ranking liberal/ leftist viewpoints higher in search results. Also if you like Chrome but want the same functionality without all the spying/ tracking, check into Iron browser.

        • Bill Smoothma

          Thanks sir.

    • Patty Rogers

      Chrome as well.

    • R A.

      I use startpage dot com.
      It’s the most secure search engine and they do NOT collect your IP address
      EFF google

      • Kay Martin

        Have used it for several years. Never liked Google.

  • Freethinker00

    Fascists are alive and well in Google land.

    • TwitterFace

      Throughout all of technology, trust me.