News and culture through the lens of Southern California.
Hosted by A Martínez
Airs Weekdays 2 to 3 p.m.

Women in tech not surprised by Google employee's anti-diversity essay




When Google went public with data about the diversity of its workforce, it fueled the ongoing conversation about diversity in the technology industry.
When Google went public with data about the diversity of its workforce, it fueled the ongoing conversation about diversity in the technology industry.
Virginia Mayo/AP

Listen to story

07:48
Download this story 11MB

A conversation about Silicon Valley's lack of diversity is bubbling to the surface after a controversial essay by a Google employee was circulated internally and leaked to the media over the weekend. Data show very low numbers of women, black, and Latino workers in tech and leadership positions at major companies.

Many tech giants are working to increase diverse representation in their workforces. Big players like Facebook, Microsoft, and Google have launched programs to recruit more women and people of color. But diversity initiatives are not being universally embraced.

A memo posted on an internal Google forum and later obtained by the blog Gizmodo on Saturday has been shared and dissected across the internet. It's titled "Google's Ideological Echo Chamber." The author is a male software engineer who is critical of efforts to diversify his industry.

Queena Kim, Senior Editor on the Silicon Valley desk at KQED, joined A Martinez on Monday to explain.

This is a 10-page essay. It's long. What's it say, in a nutshell?

Basically it calls into question Google's campaign to bring in more gender and ethnic diversity...[The author] makes the argument that there are some hard-wired reasons why there are so few women in tech and men dominate the field. The core of his point is there are some genetic differences between men and women that make this inevitable, and this idea of trying to 'socially engineer' a world where men and women are equally represented in the engineering world is false.

Here's a key quote: "...the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership."

This can't be going over well with the author's female coworkers. What's the reaction been like?

There's been a lot of backlash to this. But there's also been this interesting conversation going on that, 'yeah, this  is offensive, but not that surprising,' at least among the women engineers in Silicon Valley. [The conversation has been] that these attitudes are very pervasive in a lot of tech companies, not just Google. I guess it's not very new to them, although there's obviously a lot of anger--the fact that this was put out in a public forum at Google, and nothing really has been done about it. It was allowed to sit for many days until someone leaked it to Motherboard, and they started reporting it out, and Gizmodo got a copy of it.

I think really the backlash has been not so much that it's surprising that people believe this, or there's a certain group of male engineers that hold these views, but the fact that Google hasn't really acted and just let it sit out there.

Is the author getting some support from people who feel left out of the push for diversity?

According to reports, at least from what you're seeing on Twitter and whatnot, a lot of employees say yes. There are men who have secretly, or not so secretly, told this male engineer that we're with you. We agree with what you have to say, and this sort of blind quest for gender inclusion is wrong-minded and overlooks these hard-wired reasons why men dominate tech.

What is leadership at Google saying about all this? 

They have a new head of diversity and inclusion, Danielle Brown. She posted a memo internally. The title is "Affirming our Commitment to Diversity and Inclusion." They don't agree with [the essay]. Google's taking a very different course, and diversity and inclusion are a fundamental part of their values and their culture.

What's also sort of interesting is a response by a former Google engineer, a senior engineer there named Yonatan Zunger. He's left the company because he has no more confidential knowledge about what's happening there.... He was saying [the essay has] many misguided notions of gender...a lot of it doesn't ring true in terms of any research or real science behind it.  [Zunger also says] as an engineer, a lot of it doesn't make sense to him. The guy who wrote this manifesto says one of the things that keeps women behind is they are very cooperative. They like to work more collaboratively. And this is what keeps them back, because they're always trying to work with people rather than trying to get ahead and having sharper elbows. But this guy Yonatan Zunger makes a really interesting point. He says that maybe on the lower level, people are working in silos. And that might be true. But when you're working at a company like Google, when you're literally building for the world... it takes an incredible amount of cooperation. You're working with many different teams across many different time zones, from management to the lowest engineer. And that is all, according to Zunger, about working cooperatively. 

This interview has been edited for space and clarity. Please click on the blue media player above to hear the full conversation.