Monday 10 December 2018

Google right over gender row but has more to do

Former Google engineer James Damore who caused a storm over his memo on diversity
Former Google engineer James Damore who caused a storm over his memo on diversity

Mohamed A El-Erian

The firing of a Google employee for writing a memo that suggested women are biologically less equipped for engineering and management jobs has triggered a whole range of reactions, from those who strongly support the company's action to those who see it as repression of free speech.

Where you come out on this is partly a function of your assessment of what economists call "the initial conditions" - that is, the actual situation on the ground. On that basis, and given my experience and assessment of the average workplace, the move by Google - which said the memo advanced "harmful gender stereotypes" - puts the company on the right side of history.

Over the years, I have become increasingly aware of the extent to which corporate behaviours can fall hostage to harmful biases that have been in place for such a long time that they have become invisible orthodoxies and, as such, are very hard to dislodge, despite the growing body of research that demonstrates their resulting damage to a business's success.

The hardest such biases to spot and address are those that are unconscious in nature. Behavioural and other sciences have demonstrated the extent to which all of us can be - and I suspect are - vulnerable to blind spots that can lead us to think and act in suboptimal fashion.

As such, companies need to make continuous efforts to acknowledge, identify and manage these issues, lest they inadvertently undermine their own meritocracy and success. And in doing so, they will inevitably face an uphill battle, with the most harmful resistance coming from people who are convinced that they have no unconscious biases.

A few years ago, I was sitting in a large room listening to a presentation by a Harvard professor on blind spots. Having helped organise the event and knowing that some in the room worried that it was unnecessary for our meritocracy-focused firm, I chose to sit with a group dominated by "financial engineers."

They were so confident about their objectivity that they were also certain that this was indeed a total waste of time. In their minds, perhaps their client-facing colleagues needed this but, being rigorously trained, they were certain that they were exempt from any unconscious behaviour.

Yet, in just a couple of hours, their eyes were opened to how they may indeed be hostage to harmful biases - first through participating in various exercises, then by listening to the underlying science.

But in the weeks that followed this eye-opening session, it became clear that, while necessary, it was not sufficient. Further reinforcement and training were needed, including a comprehensive analytical discussion of the business case for inclusion and diversity. Otherwise, behaviours won't change in a manner that overcomes deeply entrenched orthodoxies and harmful conventional wisdoms.

That is the reality that, I suspect, many companies face today. Despite greater awareness and action, blind spots and unconscious biases continue to distort and hold back the performance of employees and their firms, including meritocratic ones.

Even if visible biases are addressed, dominant majorities still stand the risk of inadvertently frustrating the accomplishments and advancement of their colleagues, undermining the overall success of their company.

If this assessment is correct, companies need to take extra steps to level what is, for many reasons, an inherently uneven playing field. These efforts need to be ruthlessly consistent and highly visible - and they must be led and lived by senior management.

Viewed through this lens, Google's leadership had a strong case for taking bold and loud actions. But its response should not stop there. It needs to be followed by further open discussions about the dangers of blind spots and the need to consistently identify and manage unconscious biases, and do so within the context of comprehensive discussions of the case for inclusion and diversity. (Bloomberg)

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