A Googler’s Would-Be Manifesto Reveals Tech’s Rotten Core
Office culture is only part of the problem.
By IAN BOGOST
Aug 6 2017
An anonymous Google software engineer’s 10-page fulmination against workplace diversity was leaked from internal company communications systems, including an internal version of Google+, the company’s social network, and another service that Gizmodo, which published the full memo, called an “internal meme network.”
“I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes,” the Googler writes, “and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership.”
The memo has drawn rage and dismay since its appearance Saturday, when it was first reported by Motherboard. It seemed to dash hopes that much progress has been made in unraveling the systemic conditions that produce and perpetuate inequity in the technology industry. That includes increasing the distribution of women and minorities in technical jobs, equalizing pay, breaking the glass ceiling, and improving the quality of life in workplaces that sometimes resemble frat houses more than businesses.
These reactions to the screed are sound, but they risk missing a larger problem: The kind of computing systems that get made and used by people outside the industry, and with serious consequences, are a direct byproduct of the gross machismo of computing writ large. More women and minorities are needed in computing because the world would be better for their contributions—and because it might be much worse without them.
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Workplace equity has become a more visible issue in general, but it has reached fever pitch in the technology sector, especially with respect to women. When the former Uber engineer Susan Fowler published an explosive accusation of sexism at that company earlier this year, people took notice. When combined with a series of other scandals, not to mention with Uber’s longstanding, dubious behavior toward drivers and municipalities, the company was forced to act. CEO Travis Kalanick was ousted (although he remains on the board, where he retains substantial control).
Given the context, it’s reasonable to sneer at the anonymous Googler’s simple grievances against workplace diversity. Supposedly natural differences between men and women make them suited for different kinds of work, he argues. Failure to accept this condition casts the result as inequality, he contends, and then as oppression. Seeking to correct for it amounts to discrimination. Rejecting these premises constitutes bias, or stymies open discourse. The Googler does not reject the idea of increasing diversity in some way. However, he laments what he considers discriminatory practices instituted to accomplish those goals, among them hiring methods designed to increase the diversity of candidate pools and training or mentoring efforts meant to better support under-represented groups.
Efforts like these are necessary in the first place because diversity is so bad in the technology industry to begin with. Google publishes a diversity report, which reveals that the company’s workforce is currently comprised of 31 percent women, with 20 percent working in technical fields. Those numbers are roughly on par with the tech sector as a whole, where about a quarter of workers are women.
Racial and ethnic diversity are even worse—and so invisible that they barely register as a problem for the anonymous Googler. I was chatting about the memo with my Georgia Tech colleague Charles Isbell, who is Executive Associate Dean of the College of Computing and the only black tenure-track faculty member among over 80 in this top-ten ranking program.
“Nothing about why black and Hispanic men aren’t software engineers?” he asked me after reading the letter, paraphrasing another black computer scientist, Duke’s Jeffrey R.N. Forbes. “Did I glaze over that bit?” Isbell knows that Google’s meager distribution of women far outshines its terrible racial diversity. Only 2 percent of all U.S. Googlers are black, and only 4 percent are Hispanic. In tech-oriented positions, the numbers fall to 1 percent and 3 percent, respectively. (Unlike the gender data, which is global, the ethnic diversity data is for the U.S. only.)