Google’s Dilemma: How to Promote Diversity without Rattling the Majority

Vikas Joshi
August 21, 2017

Just a few days ago, I wrote about how VCs can play a role in fixing Silicon Valley’s toxic bro culture. Almost immediately after, the news about Google’s now infamous Diversity memo broke out, and it has been dominating mainstream and social media. The memo was based

on the assumption that the gender gap in the tech industry is a function of biology, rather than social make-up. The contents of the memo weren’t really shocking for anyone within the industry. The belief that women are less capable or uninterested in coding has been used a justification for discrimination far too many times.

To me, the memo was a great example of how deep rooted this bias is in the Silicon Valley. Even if large companies make commitments to change the culture and bring diversity, it's tough to follow through because the culture runs deep.

Google’s Diversity Challenges
Google isn’t really a stranger to challenges around diversity. It first released its diversity data in 2014. The report showed a considerable skew, with only 17% of tech roles and 21% of leadership roles going to women. While the numbers were dismal, Google was still lauded for taking the important first step of acknowledging the problem and committing to address it.

Since then, Google has taken several steps, including mandatory participation in training programs aimed at unconscious biases. It even recently hired a new vice president of diversity, integrity and governance.

Despite these measures, problems have persisted. Back in 2015, a former Google employee tweeted about being sexually harassed by seniors. She also said that when she brought it up, she was reprimanded instead of the seniors against whom she had complained. She also stated that Google’s harassment training was mostly about how not to get into trouble, rather than teaching people to respect the humanity of peers.

In April this year, the US labor department accused Google of 'extreme' gender pay discrimination, although the company denied the charge. Even in the case of the Diversity Memo, people noted that even though the Memo was around for a month, Google took action only after it went viral; making some people wonder if Google’s reactions more of a PR move than anything else.

The Diversity Dilemma
The Diversity memo incident points to a very interesting dilemma because, on one hand, it actually is proof that Google is making real efforts on the diversity front. Moreover, it also shows that Google’s efforts have been significant enough to rattle the majority.

On the other hand, the memo raises questions about the effectiveness of Google’s current approach. Also, by firing the employee, Google comes off as a company trying to shut down useful dialogue and debate that is always needed while addressing systemic issues of this magnitude.

Changing the opinion of a majority isn’t an easy task at all. But it needs to be done. Like this article by Adam Grant points out, differences between men and women are often widely exaggerated. Drawing from research evidence, he writes, “It’s time to stop making mountains out of molehills. If men are from Mars, it looks like women are too.”

Bringing about deep cultural changes is a real challenge. A top-down approach based on policies can bring compliance, but it does little to change the mindset. In fact, it is more likely to only breed discontent. Any significant change requires a long-term, sustained movement before it becomes mainstream.

The silver lining (if any) to this incident is that it has ignited discussion and debate on this topic throughout the industry. Let’s hope that this is the start of a healthy and effective debate on the sticky subject of diversity. We need to acknowledge and appreciate the dilemma faced by organisations, before we can hope to resolve it.