Commentary Law and Policy

Google’s Move to Fire Author of Sexist Memo Wasn’t Bold Stance, It Was Economics

Dianna Anderson

A ten-page memo circulated on the company intranet was a lawsuit waiting to happen.

In any workplace of a substantial size, there will always be That Guy. Maybe he refers to his women colleagues as “girls” or seems overly inclined to “help” those same women with their basic job duties. Sometimes his behavior goes further, to invasion of physical space, awkward out-of-proportion affections, or offhand commentary about women being “less capable.”

Sometimes, That Guy writes a ten-page, in-depth memo about how women are supposedly biologically inferior and unsuited for the field they are in, and about how programs to promote racial and gender diversity are themselves “discriminatory.”

This was the case of the infamous Google Memo, which became public this past week after it garnered wider attention on the company internal messaging systems. Written in response to changes at Google following negative publicity about the company’s gender pay gap, the memo was sent around the employee-wide intranet. The employee, named by news sources as senior software engineer James Damore, was subsequently fired on August 7.

Already stoked into a fury by the memo itself, much of the internet exploded with arguments and Twitter rants about how Google’s actions toward Damore represent a violation of free speech. “Firing people for their ideas should be opposed,” Jeet Heer, senior editor at the New Republic tweeted. The National Review‘s David French declared it an omen of “free speech culture” eroding. The discussion has ballooned out to a larger discussion about the importance of free speech to a democratic society.

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Meanwhile, some female writers responded by seeking to disprove the employee’s ideas, while Rae Paoletta over at Gizmodo talked about why this memo was not actually that unusual. More interest seems to be given to whether or not the memo author’s ideas were right or wrong than what it meant for Google. These arguments are missing the heart of the matter: Google’s firing of Damore was neither a free speech issue nor was it a bold stance in the face of sexism and racism. It’s economics, pure and simple.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a hostile work environment is one in which “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information” is allowed to exist in a workplace to the point where enduring the “conduct becomes a condition of continued employment” or is sufficient enough to create a workplace “a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.” Such harassment, the EEOC notes, is a violation of “Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, (ADA).”

A ten-page memo, circulated by a man in a position to potentially influence workplace environments, that deems his colleagues “biologically inferior” likely meets those requirements. This memo was a lawsuit waiting to happen. If Google wanted to avoid costly court battles with any female employee who found herself turned down by Damore for promotion, further training, or project opportunities, firing Damore is the logical next step. The fact that Damore broadcast his views on the inferiority of people who are not white men on the company intranet demonstrated his willingness to bring his regressive views into the workplace, making it uncomfortable for any employee not in that category who may encounter him.

To be sure, these kinds of work environment lawsuits are notoriously difficult to win, especially against a large company like Google. It takes an immense amount of time, energy, and expense to hire an employment lawyer to litigate the suit, even if you have the kind of evidence this memo provides. At the same time, big companies often don’t like to be involved in these suits because of how long and difficult the process can be.

In that sense, Google did, in fact, make a move to protect employees at the company by improving their work environment. At the end of the day, Google’s decision does protect its employees’ ability to work—just not their ability to disseminate hostile manifestos through work channels.

Google’s decision, in light of its ongoing pay gap controversy, is a sound one. It’s sound not because it takes some kind of bold feminist stance, or because it condemns sexism as an idea. It’s a sound decision because it will prevent numerous lawsuits and improve the working environment in at least one measurable way—there’s one less of That Guy walking the halls of Google.

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