Marshall Mathers, the rap superstar, is known by a variety of names–Marshall, his birth name, Eminem, his stage name, or Slim Shady, the name of his violent alter ego. In 2002, he released the song “Without Me” on the album The Eminem Show, which went on to become one of his most popular songs–it was even featured in one of the trailers for the children’s movie, Despicable Me 2. The song contains of Eminem’s most well known lines, “Guess who’s back, back again; Shady’s back, tell a friend; guess who’s back, guess who’s back…” Well, guess who actually is back, and on the front page of the news? No, it’s not Slim Shady. It’s the (already) infamous Google software engineer who authored the “anti-diversity” memo over the weekend.
Goodbye, James Damore
James Damore has been identified as the employee who wrote the controversial memo about women in the tech workspace (the full text of the memo can be found here). He has been with Google since December 2013 and holds a master’s degree in systems biology from Harvard University. The memo he authored, which he wrote in hopes of introducing a discussion of Google’s culture into the workplace, was published a few days ago. Unfortunately for Mr. Damore, Google saw the memo as a breach of its Code of Conduct and terminated his employment. Google CEO Sundar Pichai commented that Mr. Damore, “crossed the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.” The move was praised by many, as Mr. Damore’s comments were interpreted as inflammatory, misled, and sexist (yet, in an odd turn of events, Mr. Damore was offered a job by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange). Mr. Damore has threatened to sue Google for his employment termination, possibly on the grounds of violating his right to free speech. This move, however, will likely be unfruitful. As one judicial analyst points out, “the first amendment restrains the government, it does not restrain private employers.”
Is the Fire Really Put Out?
Did Google put the fire out when they fired Mr. Damore (pun intended)? First, one really needs to note the irony of the situation. A Google employee publishes a memo in which he says, “I value diversity and inclusion, am not denying that sexism exists, and don’t endorse using stereotypes… If we can’t have an honest discussion about this, then we can never truly solve the problem.” Right from the get-go, Mr. Damore admits that he wants an open and honest discussion, regardless of whether the case he presents is valid or not. Then Google, in response to the memo, decides to fire him. Where is the irony? According to Google’s own report, there is a 70/30 split of men and women throughout all positions in the company, and an 80/20 split in tech positions. Google is essentially saying “Do as I say, not as I do.” Irrespective of the validity of Mr. Damore’s opinions, the hypocrisy is rather glaring. One wonders when Google is going to put its money where its mouth is and begin hiring more females.
Secondly, Google’s actions raise the question of free speech in the private sector. To be sure, as a private business, Google has the right to fire its employees for words (or memos) they deem inappropriate. The government cannot and should not interfere with their choice to do so, assuming the termination was done on the basis of facts, i.e. companies can’t fire employees for words the employee(s) never said. Yet, one has to question the lack of discussion about the issue at hand. None of the evidence released so far suggests that Mr. Damore was given the choice to discuss his opinions with others. Again, this is not mandatory or required, but one would hope that Mr. Damore was at least granted the opportunity to have an open dialogue. After all, this is what his memo aimed to accomplish.
Going forward, there is much to be learned by all sides. For Mr. Damore–maybe don’t release the memo next time. For Google–make sure your walk matches your talk. And for everyone else–don’t be afraid of open and honest discussion, even when it’s with those with starkly contrasting points of view.