Saturday 21 October 2017

Google's sexism row is not a one-off - Silicon Valley has a deep-set gender problem

The Google logo is shown reflected on an adjacent office building in Irvine, California, U.S. August 7, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake
The Google logo is shown reflected on an adjacent office building in Irvine, California, U.S. August 7, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Cara McGoogan

A Google employee's 10-page letter about gender at the company ripped through Silicon Valley this week, putting into writing what many feared about the sexism inherent in the technology world.

Computer engineer James Damore drew on now-defunct gender stereotypes and pseudo-biology in a 3,000-word appeal to Google to end programmes designed to increase diversity. He argued that women are biologically less technically-minded than men, and that they are more interested in people than things. On Tuesday, he was fired as a result.

The letter cannot be read in isolation or be written off as the opinion of one employee. It is yet another piece of evidence in the case against technology's Californian idealism, which is in fact built on foundations of sexism. 

Silicon Valley is idealised as a liberal and progressive centre of innovation that is dedicated to educating and connecting the world through technology. Its representatives claim their mission is to democratise access to human rights. Google provides access to information to everyone, everywhere at no cost. Facebook's platforms bring people together, no matter their creed or colour. Uber puts consumers directly in contact with producers.

But the industry is underpinned by gender inequality. In the 1960s, women led the charge in the software revolution. Male society was preoccupied with hardware development so programming was taken up by women. Grace Hopper, a famous developer, was hailed for laying the foundations for the Cobol computer language, which is used in many financial and administrative systems today. 

Then, in the 1970s, the tide turned when programming became a more fundamental part of the technology. Women were squeezed out of prestigious roles as male employees flooded in. Last year, research from coding platform GitHub revealed highly competent female coders are forced to hide their gender to have their work accepted.

Gender inequality cracks are now starting to show at the world's largest technology firms, threatening to undermine its foundations and force a dramatic change in culture. In April the US Government launched an investigation into Google over its alleged gender discrimination. It has been ordered to hand salary records and employee contract details to the Department as part of the ongoing inquiry.

Google's diversity statistics for 2014, released last year, paint a damning picture. Women make up just 31pc of the search giant's workforce and 59pc of its employees are white. Only 25pc of its leadership positions are filled by women, and 20pc of its technical jobs. It is too early to predict the outcome of the inquiry or speculate how the findings could affect the company. Google has strongly denied the accusations and said it doesn't have a gender pay gap.

Damore's memo about gender diversity at Google is an indictment of the problems. The post, titled "Google's ideological echo chamber", outlined how the company should stop gender equality programmes and hire men for technical roles.

The offensive note stayed on Google's internal site for days before it was taken down. News of the post spread across the company, accompanied by outcries from many, as its executives decided how to respond.

Google chief executive Sundar Pichai eventually condemned the memo, saying it "crossed the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes". "To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK," said Pichai.

Google isn't the only technology company embroiled in a gender row, and the incident adds to the case against the industry, offering a window into how sexism prevails. Of the major firms, Twitter has the greatest share of women in leadership positions at 30pc, according to analysis by Recode. But just 15pc of its employees in technical roles are women. Facebook follows closely behind with 28pc of its leadership roles filled by women, while Intel and Microsoft's share of female leaders is just 18pc.

The Department of Labor has had to take similar legal action against a number of firms. It has filed cases against companies including software giant Oracle and Peter Thiel's data analytics company Palantir.

The most high profile example of discrimination played out earlier this year at Uber, eventually unseating its chief executive. Former Uber employee Susan Fowler wrote an open letter to the company outlining the sexual harassment and culture of silence she had suffered while working at the ride-hailing service's headquarters. Fowler reported an employee had made sexual advances toward her, but was later told he wouldn't be punished because he was a "high achiever".

Uber launched an urgent investigation into claims of widespread sexual harassment at the company. Former US attorney general Eric Holder, who was hired to assess the company's culture, said sexual misconduct was endemic. As a result of the report, Uber's chief executive Travis Kalanick was forced to step down. A further 20 employees were fired and 40 reprimanded.

It only took one case of discrimination to bring down Uber. Google will attempt to brush off its own example as the opinion of one individual. But it will be hard for it to recover from the blow to its reputation and its female employees' esteem.

Telegraph.co.uk

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