Earlier this year, author of the infamous Google Memo, James Damore, together with Harmeet Dhillon, a female Republican lawyer, brought a class action against the internet giant, accusing the company of discriminating against white men in particular, and conservatives in general. Within the same month, lawyers representing women who worked at Google brought a revised class action lawsuit to court, making the claim that female Googlers were, and still are, routinely paid less, assigned to lower positions and promoted less often than the men in the company.
The company is thus facing legal action from both ends of the political spectrum: progressive feminists and a Republican representing white males. It’s hard to say what the outcome of these two lawsuits will be at this stage. Google will surely put up a formidable defence on both fronts, while leaders of other large organisations – both inside Silicon Valley and outside – will be watching intently. While the internet behemoth has pockets deep enough to absorb such legal costs, the public relations fall out will be damaging. Each time a new piece of evidence hits the headlines, the company looks more like a dysfunctional soap opera than a dynamic tech innovator.
As of February 2018, Damore’s complaint against the internet giant consisted of an 87-page long expose featuring countless screenshots from internal message boards, which employees used to communicate with each other. This communication, it is alleged, is evidence of widespread prejudice against white males and conservatives within the organisation.
Of course, these screenshots present a ‘cherry-picked’ view; the snippets don’t give the bigger picture of staff communication, which for the most part is likely mundane and reasonable. Nevertheless, the snippets that are shown present a salacious picture of unprofessional behaviour and a culture of normalised intolerance.
“By being a white male, you are in a privileged class, whether you like it or not. So, no, you really actually don’t get to complain about your right to an opinion”
On white men, one Google employee writes that they “already have all the advantages in the world” (Complaint 40) and that “It’s not sexism/racism if it’s against males/whites” (Exhibit 76). Another shares their opinion: “By being a white male, you are in a privileged class that is actively harmful to others, whether you like it or not. So, no, you really actually don’t get to complain about your right to an opinion” (Exhibit 53). Another employee comments, “The only way we ‘move past color’ in America is for white people to shut up and listen” (Exhibit 47). Terms frequently used in communications included “mansplaining” (Exhibit 74) “whitesplaining” (Exhibit 58), “white fragility” (Exhibit 59), “white tears” (Exhibit 85), and “toxic whiteness” (Exhibit 61).
It used to be that corporations would go to great lengths to avoid being seen as politicised to the public, the reasoning being obvious: if you take a political stance, you are likely to alienate potential customers. But things have changed – particularly within the United States. Companies now engage in flamboyant virtue-signalling to attract certain markets and offset their image of greedy corporations. Google has long been accused of tax avoidance, privacy breaches and other kinds of unethical behaviour. To compensate for this, it appears that they have turned up the dial on their commitment to “social justice”.
When the company was founded by Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Google’s mission statement was “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. Their unofficial motto was “don’t be evil,” which later became an official motto of “do the right thing”. In recent years the company has increasingly aligned itself with social justice and progressive values in the public sphere. How much of this signalling is sincere, and how much is confected is up for debate. But what is clear, is that for some staff within the organisation, these commitments to social justice have not yet gone far enough.
In the lawsuit filed against Google claiming discrimination against women, three former Google employees: Kelly Ellis, Holly Pease and Kelli Wisuri, accused the company of systematically paying women less than men. It has been reported that in coming to their view they compiled a spreadsheet of confidential information – other employees’ salaries – comparing rates of their colleagues by gender. This spreadsheet ended up being leaked to the press, and was parodied by the satirical site The Onion, in a piece entitled: “Google Now Giving Female Employees a Free Day Each Week to Work on Lawsuits.”
One of the complainants, Kelly Ellis, has alleged that she left the company because of its “sexist culture,” and has tweeted about being sexually harassed by male staff. Her accounts of being harassed include an engineering director telling her that it was “taking all of [his] self-control not to grab your ass right now,” another staff member telling her that “You look amazing in that bathing suit, like a rockstar,” and overhearing a male staff member say to another, “Doesn’t Kelly look amazing heh, heh.”
The unfolding Google drama should be seen as a cautionary lesson about what can happen when a company lets identity politics through its doors.
In January, the women’s lawsuit was thrown out by a (female) judge for being too vague. The judge intimated that while the discrepancies in pay were there, the complaint did not adequately prove that the male and female employees were doing the same work, and so discrimination could not be proven. The women have said that they will be “rebooting” their accusations, returning to court with the required evidence; meanwhile, newspapers around the world run headlines which scream: “Google Sued for Gender Discrimination”.
The unfolding Google drama should be seen as a cautionary lesson about what can happen when a company lets identity politics through its doors. Identity politics: the tendency of people to form political alliances according to their membership to a group based on race, gender, sexuality or disability, as opposed to shared principles, is corrosive to a large corporate organisation, because it exaggerates what psychologists call our in-group/out-group biases, sabotaging team spirit in the process.
Psychologists explain it like this: human beings have evolved to operate in tribes and have learned to be somewhat wary of those who come from different tribes. In experiments conducted in the 1970s, psychologists found that positive feelings towards one’s in-group and negative feelings towards an out-group were easily activated and easily maintained. The human predilection towards tribalism appears universal and instinctive.
In a famous experiment called the Minimal Group Paradigm, schoolboys were assigned to two different groups according to whether they preferred the abstract paintings of Klimt, or the abstract paintings of Klee. When they were pitted against each other in a series of games, they consistently favoured members of their own group, and consistently competed against members of the out-group, despite the fact that the distinction between them was completely arbitrary. Further experiments have found that this in-group/out-group bias can be activated as something as simple as a coin toss.
Why is this happening? We can blame identity politics. While many groups can claim ownership to historical injustices, and have legitimate concerns, identity politics can also be taken too far.
What this means for the workplace is that policies and initiatives that are designed to improve ‘diversity’ can end up backfiring on a company, because they can activate this in-group/out-group bias.
Programs that are well-intentioned can actually cause more harm than good if they are implemented without sensitivity to whether or not people feel as if they pit against each other in little mini-tribes. Such programs can include “implicit bias training,” which is now being blamed for causing “backfire effects” within workplaces. And this training, which is based on a test which is in its own right controversial (many psychologists argue that it does not measure actual bias) was implemented by Google across its entire workforce in 2013.
Around five years ago, Google rolled out its unconscious bias training – inspired by the disputed Implicit Association Test (IAT) – to its entire workforce of 60,000 people. It consisted of a presentation that lasted between 60 and 90 minutes. The presentation began with slides explaining that implicit bias was natural: it was in all of us, and we were born with it, because the human brain evolved to be efficient and take shortcuts. The presentation gently explained that unfortunately some of these shortcuts were bad and had unwanted effects in the workplace. The slides then proceeded to state:
“Even a tiny bit of bias can have big consequences.”
“Companies with higher proportions of women board directors outperform others by 53 per cent”.
What this training does do, however, is bring skin colour and gender identity to the fore.
Since Google rolled out this training, its effectiveness has been disputed. For example, a large systemic review conducted in 2016, and published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that implicit bias training had no lasting effect at all. Another large 2017 meta-analysis (yet to be published) found that while “implicit bias is malleable,” any change in implicit bias “does not necessarily lead to changes in explicit bias or behaviour”.
What this training does do, however, is bring skin colour and gender identity to the fore. It increases people’s awareness of their identity as “male” or “female” or ”white or “black” thereby creating an in-group of “female Googlers” and “minority Googlers” and an out-group of “white male Googlers”. It’s no wonder, that five years later, the company finds itself being sued by representatives of both identity groups, aggrieved that the company is making them feel uncomfortable, and angered that things have not gone their way.
Due to the aggressive diversity efforts aimed at promoting women and minorities within the company, Google’s leaders appear to have activated a sense of grievance and factionalism among their employee community. Rather than working together as a cohesive and trusting team, employees have compiled spreadsheets about each other, have taken screenshots of each other’s communications, and have tweeted out their frustrations for all the world to see.
Why is this happening? We can blame identity politics. While many groups can claim ownership to historical injustices, and have legitimate concerns, identity politics can also be taken too far. And when it is taken too far, what emerges is a rejection of teamwork based on shared values and a shared vision, and what emerges instead is a zero-sum competition for power and resources. And within the workplace, this is poison.