office hours

When Your Colleague Believes Discrimination at Work Doesn’t Exist

Photo: SUSANA BATES/AFP/Getty Images

Over the past few months, the “boys’ club” culture of Silicon Valley has begun to blow up on itself. A series of major companies have been faced with public callouts, which have led to CEOs getting pushed out, new diversity and inclusion officers being brought in, and more and more women coming forward with their own stories about why working in tech can be so toxic.

While seeing a huge industry publicly confront its worst issues has provided some hope that change could be afoot for women at work on the whole, Saturday’s leaked Google anti-diversity memo shows how far we still have to go. The memo, written by a Google engineer and shared on Google’s internal meme network, is ten pages of strained “logic” about what makes women ill-equipped to be engineers, and thus deserving of less pay. One excerpt reads:

At Google, we’re regularly told that implicit (unconscious) and explicit biases are holding women back in tech and leadership. Of course, men and women experience bias, tech, and the workplace differently and we should be cognizant of this, but it’s far from the whole story.On average, men and women biologically differ in many ways. These differences aren’t just socially constructed because:

-They’re universal across human cultures

-They often have clear biological causes and links to prenatal testosterone

-Biological males that were castrated at birth and raised as females often still identify and act like males

-The underlying traits are highly heritable

-They’re exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective

Note, I’m not saying that all men differ from women in the following ways or that these differences are “just.” I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership. Many of these differences are small and there’s significant overlap between men and women, so you can’t say anything about an individual given these population level distributions.

(The screed, which was appended to note that the author had received “many personal messages from fellow Googlers expressing their gratitude” for his words, can be read in full over at Gizmodo. The engineer has since been fired.)

Every woman knows a man like the one who circulated this memo. He is skilled in presenting what he perceives to be infallible arguments about a situation that does not, and never will, affect him. He believes that his reasoning, which will only further confirm the perspectives of other men like him, is enough to push women to wash their hands of this debate and go back to their desks. Men like this can be our colleagues, but worse — they can be our bosses.

So who, if anyone, is responsible for correcting them? Who should be telling these bozos to get their facts straight? If a man is a pay-gap denier, or is certain that inclusion initiatives are useless, but he is also your boss or your superior, is it your responsibility to step in and say, “Hey, you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about”? According to experts, yes and no.

Kevin Miller, senior researcher at the American Association of University Women, said that if you are inclined to approach a discrimination denier at the workplace about their flawed information, providing more in-depth and nuanced perspectives on readily available statistics and data can be helpful. “This problem starts early,” he told the Cut. “There’s even data that show that girls are more likely to do housework and chores than boys are. It compounds over time.”

Tech, Miller said, is an industry associated with “high prestige,” and that means women are getting boxed out of jobs because we associate higher-prestige jobs with men. “High prestige means higher pay and higher pay means high prestige,” Miller explained. “All these differences are self-reinforcing. Women’s work isn’t worth as much as men’s. If a woman is doing a job, we think it can’t be that valuable.” When this context is provided, as opposed to just the often-repeated 80 cents to the dollar statistic, some office bros who think they’ve “heard all the facts” could reconsider. But not all of them.

Miller added that because some of the most “hard-core deniers will not be convinced by any data,” it’s especially important for allies in leadership positions to stand up for their colleagues and employees when they witness injustices themselves.

Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, agreed. “It cannot fall only on women to raise concern about a company’s poor culture because it’s not just a problem for women,” she told the Cut by phone. “If you have a culture that is undermining the advancement of women in your organization, it’s a problem for the whole organization.” This means upper management getting ahead of controversies like the ones started at companies like Google, Tesla, and Uber this year, and committing to transparency on how hiring is done, how harassment is handled, and where blind spots and biases might lurk.

First, Goss Graves recommends that management survey its employees, and often. “An anonymous climate survey at work is a way to assess a range of indicators around sex and race and harassment and beyond. It could be a status check, too, where you repeat the same survey in a few months to see how your company is making progress,” she explained. Why does she believe that could help? “You’re likely to hear from some of those people at company meetings who would never, ever raise their hands. That’s important.”

Despite how bad things look now, Goss Graves believes that the Google-memo leak itself will have a positive ripple effect. “Having something like this out in the open, something that might reflect a broader work culture in tech and beyond, it can help to stir important conversations.” She is most optimistic that a situation like this one will inspire large organizations to work together in debunking misinformation on inequality, harassment, and equal pay, and course-correcting for the future. “It’s not about just terminating one person,” she said, “because it’s not just about the actions of one person. It’s a broader challenge. Some of that is going to include setting [out] to rest these myths.”

When Your Colleague Believes Discrimination at Work Is a Lie