The Google memo and cross-cultural diversity

Perhaps you heard about James Damore, the Google employee who was fired after writing an internal memo that included comments about women being biologically inferior when it came to meeting the demands of engineering. The memo, ten pages long, said Google was suppressing free expression by creating an ideological echo chamber and shaming into silence those who disagree.  

I agree with Damore’s call for more open dialogue, political and otherwise. According to a January 2017 Weber Shandwick poll, 75% of American’s believe that incivility in America is at a crisis point. We need to learn the skill of reaching out across our differences, especially an era of highly partisan media streams. 

However, Damore claims women on average have a stronger interest in people rather than things; are more oriented toward “extraversion expressed as gregariousness” rather than assertiveness; and are more neurotic. These are some of the reasons he points to that women are less fit to be engineers. 

Damore does not articulate the complex social dynamics of these patterns. For instance, research at Catalyst shows that professional women experience a double bind — having to be assertive and nice at the same time. Men just are free to be assertive.

Add in the crossing of languages and mixing of cultures in multinational corporations around the world, now you’ve added layers of complexity. Many cultures would not describe women as oriented toward “extraversion expressed as gregariousness.” Women are not expected to be extroverted in some cultures in the Middle East, for example.

But for the sake of argument, if research found that women are better at relationships and empathy, would we use that to justify having most managers and counselors be female? After all, research shows emotional intelligence correlates more highly to success as a leader than either technical skills or IQ. Would Damore use his own logic against men?

Later, Damore asserts that we should de-emphasize empathy. Part of white male culture in the US is seeing rationality and emotion as an either/or — you can’t be rational or emotional
 at the same time. However, other cultures don’t hold that assumption.

Finally, Damore claims diversity efforts are discriminatory because they target a specific group, such as women or people of color. His assumption is likely that the playing field is level and that these practices give an unfair advantage to nonwhite men in the United States. Others who do not see the playing field as level argue these efforts are about leveling the slanted playing field. The dialogue should include exploring how people see current reality rather then just how they feel about efforts to improve workplace inclusion. There needs to be space for the complexity of these issues. 

Discussing the dynamics of diversity links back to the need for more open dialogue and learning across employees, not quick politically correct fixes to end a “problem” that emerges. In this vein, diversity discussions become an avenue for expanding our courage and dealing with ambiguity – key skills needed for discussing all of today’s complex business issues.  

It’s best to explore how the dominant culture in businesses — wherever you are in the world — influences the ability of men and women to bring their skillsets to work.