Skip to main content

Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.Marcio Jose Sanchez/The Associated Press

A Google engineer was fired after publishing a lengthy manifesto critical of the company's diversity efforts that is renewing the long-simmering debate about sexism in Silicon Valley.

The controversy over James Damore's memo sparked anguish among Google employees and touched off a fierce debate far beyond Silicon Valley – even prompting a job offer for Mr. Damore from Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Mr. Damore, a 28-year-old engineer who had been at the company since 2013, published a 10-page memo, titled Google's Ideological Echo Chamber, that pointed to biological differences between men and women as the driving force behind the tech industry's gender gap and urged Google to "stop alienating conservatives."

It quickly went viral over the weekend and by late Monday, Google chief executive officer Sundar Pichai announced he cancelled a family vacation to return to the company's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters to deal with the burgeoning crisis.

Google's controversy comes at a particularly tense time in Silicon Valley. The tech industry has been rocked in recent months by allegations of widespread harassment and discrimination that have toppled high-profile executives including Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and venture capitalists Justin Caldbeck and Dave McClure.

The memo sparked widespread anger among Google employees, some of whom took to social media to criticize Mr. Damore.

"The doc was a disaster from a truly bad place," Louis Gray, a senior programmer with Google Analytics, wrote on Twitter. Google engineer Andrew Bonventre called Mr. Damore's manifesto a "garbage fire of a document" in a tweet.

Several online commentators took to social media to question Mr. Damore's resume on LinkedIn, which lists him as having a PhD in systems biology at Harvard University. Wired reported Mr. Damore never completed the program, although he does have a master's degree in the subject from the school.

Mr. Damore, meanwhile, has not gone quietly, telling outlets including Reuters and Bloomberg by e-mail that he was fired for "perpetuating gender stereotypes" and had previously complained to the U.S. National Labour Relations Board that Google executives tried to silence him for his views.

He has quickly become a hero to some conservative and libertarian activists. "Censorship is for losers," Mr. Assange tweeted in offering Mr. Damore a job at Wikileaks. Wesearchr, a crowdfunding site popular among supporters of right-wing causes, created a fundraiser for Mr. Damore's potential legal expenses that had raised more than $9,000 (U.S.) by Tuesday afternoon.

"Stop teaching my girl that her path to financial freedom lies not in coding but in complaining to HR," tweeted Eric Weinstein, managing director of Thiel Capital, the San Francisco investment firm started by Peter Thiel. University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson, a prominent figure in debates over free-speech, wrote that he was planning to speak with Mr. Damore and post the conversation on YouTube.

As one of Silicon Valley's most established tech giants, Google was also among the firms that made the greatest push on diversity. It was the first large tech firm to begin publishing statistics about the diversity of its work force in 2014. Several of Silicon Valley's most prominent female executives have come up through its ranks, including former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki and Diane Greene, a Google board member who runs the company's cloud services division. Last month the company hired former Intel executive Danielle Brown as its vice-president of diversity.

Yet, despite its diversity efforts, the company has continued to grapple with many of the same the issues around gender and harassment that have plagued the tech industry.

Its latest work force statistics, released in June, showed that 20 per cent of its tech workers are women, up from 17 per cent three years ago. Just 2 per cent of its U.S. employees are African-American and 4 per cent are Latino. The company is also the subject of a federal investigation into alleged gender-based pay discrimination, including a lawsuit by the Department of Labour.

Google has also struggled with how to balance a tech culture that encourages open debate and dissent with the increasingly complex issues facing a global work force of more than 72,000 employees.

"I think there's a general desire in tech for openness and flatter hierarchies," said Cate Huston, a former software engineer at Google who attended the University of Ottawa and previously worked in Google's Waterloo office. "I actually value a lot of that part of the culture, but there's a big difference between questioning ideas, and questioning people's right to belong."

Current and former employees say Mr. Damore's manifesto is not the first controversial piece of writing circulated by employees, which rarely resulted in employees being fired or reprimanded. There were often debates on internal company message boards about whether women were as capable at engineering as men and whether diversity in hiring was "lowering the bar," though few were as exhaustive as Mr. Damore's detailed memo, Ms. Huston said. And while senior management often encouraged diversity and inclusion training and support programs, in practice those efforts didn't always trickle down to middle managers, she added.

While many employees were angry about Mr. Damore's memo, the controversy over it has also fed an ongoing debate at the company over widespread leaks of internal communications that some worry are casting a chill over the company's previously open communication policy.

In his memo to employees, which Google released as the company's official public statement, Mr. Pichai addressed the company's cultural tug-of-war. "Our co-workers shouldn't have to worry that each time they open their mouths to speak in a meeting, they have to prove that they are not like the memo states, being 'agreeable' rather than 'assertive,' showing a 'lower stress tolerance,' or being 'neurotic,'" he wrote.

But at the same time, he said, Mr. Damore's memo raised several important issues about whether training programs open to women and visible minorities should be accessible to all employees, as well as the "role of ideology in the workplace."