Google employee anti-diversity manifesto is a classic example of unconscious bias

The Google employee who sent an internal mail titled 'Google's Ideological Echo Chamber', has once again raised the issue that is endemic to the tech industry in general. The gender and race disparity, which is present is almost all the industries, sees a particularly higher gap in science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) fields.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

Over the weekend, a 10-page document written by a Google employee expressed a need to stop its diversity campaigns and focus on ideological diversity.

The post, written by a male software engineer, went viral within the organisation for its controversial content, which went to the extent of saying that women in the same position as men, were paid less not due to any bias but because of inherent psychological differences between the genders.

Geetha Kannan, managing director, India, for the Anita Borg Institute which works towards advocating diversity in technology and educating organisations on its importance, says that this is nothing new. According to Kannan, the attitude emerging from the 10-page document is a classic example of falling victim to the unconscious bias — prejudices which are defined by attitudes or stereotypes which affect our understanding, actions and decisions in an unconscious manner.

According to Google's 2017 diversity report, while the overall women : men ratio is 31 : 69, in the technology and leadership roles, the gap becomes even more wider. While there are 20 percent women in tech in Google in 2017 as compared to a mere 17 percent in 2014, only one in four women hold leadership roles. In terms of racial diversity, over 50 percent are White, a consistent figure for every year since 2013.

Amidst these numbers, for an employee to advocate discrimination when it comes to diversity is bound to go the wrong way. Google's vice president for Diversity, Integrity and Governance Danielle Brown sent across a memo to Googlers saying that the company did not endorse the vision of the employee who sent out the 10-page document.

"The gender gap in work environments can be attributed to many factors such as women not taking responsibility due to socio-cultural factors or they not being assertive or ambitious enough. On the other hand, it's about organisations not doing enough to bridge the gender gap. And that's where we are suffering the most," says Kannan.

Diversity on the recruitment panel is pertinent if one is to have a diverse workforce, according to Kannan.

"You generally tend to recruit someone who resembles you. We always advocate the fact that whenever you hire, there should be a diversity in the hiring panel itself," says Kannan.

It is no wonder then that we keep hearing about the 'bro-culture' in most startups. Or the fact that there are very few women startup founders. This Quora thread has some interesting insights into why that could be so.

But even the corporate IT world is afflicted by this phenomenon. "There are some organisations who are taking concerted efforts now to bridge the gap, but it's a long process. A very famous IT company in India managed to reduce the gender gap by around 1.5 percent, only after the top management took deep interest in ensuring it happened. It took around three years," says Kannan.

Then there is the question of having quotas to show diversity numbers. Kannan feels that it makes no sense just to hire women and say that you have a healthy diversity mix. There are a lot of things you have to do to retain these employees.

There are also studies which have pointed to the fact women negotiate less than men when it comes to asking for a raise in salary or a promotion. Also the attitudes differ according to Kannan. "For instance, if you are a male and are assertive about wanting a promotion — you are called ambitious, a go-getter, you will be seen to be demonstrating your leadership skills and so on. Basically it is seen in a positive light. Whereas if you changed the genders and kept the situation as is, the women would be called bossy, trying to take control and basically painting it with a negative brush," says Kannan.

Also, the rate of promotions is different for men and women. Whereas men might ask for incentives to do more work, women tend to take on more work at the same pay, says Kannan. This ultimately leads to women getting a lower pay grade for the same amount of work that their male counterpart does.

According to Kannan, there is an inherent unconscious bias that in a lot of us which also causes us to make these decisions. For instance, if you are on a road and the car ahead of you takes a left turn instead of a right, you immediately assume that the driver is a woman. This is the same bias that causes a lot of recruiters to think that women in STEM are not up for the challenge.

"It is widely assumed that in the STEM fields since it requires a lot of left-brain related work, it is not suitable for women who are more right-brain oriented. If a recruiter or a company's top management is already thinking along those lines, then how can the woman get a chance to get that promotion?" questions Kannan.

Lot of companies used to have a Chief Diversity Officer who would report to the top management thereby ensuring that they drive the change through recommendations made. But nowadays it is just a human resources related position in a company, says Kannan.

Kannan is also against the idea of having diversity for the sake of it. "There is a fear that you are taken in as a 'diversity' candidate only to fill a position, to fill a quota. Sometimes it is for work that nobody wants to do. This can be counter productive as that position may not really be something the candidate may be proficient at. You then reach a stage called a Glass Cliff, which leads one nowhere. The candidate is most likely bound to fail as that position is not something where her strength lies in," says Kannan.

While Google may not endorse the perspective of its employee, the 10-page document has already undone some of the good work Google may have been doing in this field.

As former Googler Yonatan Zunger noted in this Medium post addressing the author of the manifesto, "I need to be very clear here: not only was nearly everything you said in that document wrong, the fact that you did that has caused significant harm to people across this company, and to the company’s entire ability to function...I am no longer even at the company and I’ve had to spend half of the past day talking to people and cleaning up the mess you’ve made."


Published Date: Aug 07, 2017 01:59 pm | Updated Date: Aug 07, 2017 02:13 pm