Australian startup leaders speak out against Google employee’s anti-diversity memo

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Issues of gender equality and diversity in the technology and startup ecosystems have been widely publicised in recent months, and a controversial memo from a Google employee in the US, which began circulating over the weekend, has thrown these issues into sharp relief.

The male Google employee’s 3300 word ‘manifesto’ was published in full on Gizmodo, and details his opinion that women are not underrepresented in tech because of the discrimination they face, but rather because of inherently different psychological traits that men and women posses.

Google’s leadership has slammed the contents of the memo, with chief executive Sundar Pichai cutting short a vacation to address the incident, and informing staff in an email that while Google “strongly support[s] the right of Googlers to express themselves”, parts of the memo breach the company’s code of conduct and “cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace”.

“Our job is to build great products for users that make a difference in their lives. To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK,” Pichai said in the email.

The author of the memo has also told media outlets that he has been fired from Google for “perpetuating gender stereotypes” and is now considering his legal options.

The fallout from the memo has put further attention on diversity and gender-related issues in the technology and startup sectors in recent months, following critiques of Uber’s “toxic” company culture, and the 500 Startups harassment scandal that rocked the startup world and inspired an open letter penned by the Australian startup ecosystem, pledging to fight discrimination.

StartupSmart spoke to some key players in the Australian startup ecosystem about the Google memo, and the role that gender and diversity plays in the tech sector. Here’s what they had to say.

James Cameron, partner at AirTree ventures:

“Any suggestion that there are biological differences that make women more or less suited to work in technology is plain stupidity. Using the masquerade of free speech to convey this sort of opinion is insidious.

“Gender and other minority stereotypes are incredibly harmful in the workplace and we within the tech ecosystem need to be doing everything we can to counteract them. We’ve been very public about these issues in the past and have been very clear. There is no excuse to be blind to the impact that biases within the workplace — both conscious and unconscious — have on both women and minorities in tech.”

Annie Parker, Fishburners interim chief executive: 

“The issues being raised across the tech community, whether it’s the recent events at Google, sexual harassment allegations of inappropriate behaviour in the investor community, and of course the long running saga of toxic working culture in Uber, show that this is not just a one company problem.

“From the feedback we have had since we put a coordinated statement out from the tech ecosystem, it’s equally not just a tech problem either — stories of harassment, bullying and toxic working environments are suffered by men and women across all industries.

“We [the authors of the coordinated statement] are pulling together a plan for what we believe we can do to improve conditions and behaviours from the tech ecosystem, we would love for this to become a standard that all industries look to follow.”

Didier Elzinga, CultureAmp co-founder and chief executive: 

“Ten to twenty years ago this wouldn’t have been news because no one would have been talking about it. The very fact that this is the thing that everyone is looking at, that it’s a big issue that people are really struggling with, is some progress [and] it’s something we are struggling with as an industry. It shows we have a very long way to go …

“The biggest thing he [the Google employee] didn’t talk about was the concept of compound privilege. The challenge we have in the society we have constructed today is that there are groups of people who have the cumulative effect of compound[ed] privilege.

“I’m one of them — a white middle aged tech CEO. I’ve had every possible opportunity thrown my way; it’s not about what’s happened today [for example], it’s about what’s happened every day since high school.

“Men are in power because they are getting selectively chosen from smaller groups, which are chosen from the group before — you only need to look at  [the lack of diversity in] boards to see that played out

“The good thing in my mind is that it’s a topic that people are talking about, and while not everyone agrees, it’s good that it’s getting talked about in the open.”

Richenda Vermeulen, founder and chief executive of ntegrity:

“It’s a horrible oversimplification, not just for women but also for men. To say men are incapable of being good with people, that they are not good at listening and connecting to others, it’s offensive to both men and women based on one person’s analysis of what they see as a woman’s and a man’s role.

“A lot of the author’s opinion is just links to a lot of anti-progressive discussion debate that Donald Trump has opened up, which has specific relevance to the tech world — in the broader level people are debating diversity [right now]. 

“As a female CEO … with the majority of my team being female, one of the areas we’ve seen we need to change is having more males work with us and pursuing that gender balance. It’s in the best interest of our clients, [and] the users of our services: diversity leads to better business outcomes.”

Aaron Birkby, StartupCatalyst chief executive:

“The data shows that companies with diverse teams, diverse leadership, and diverse boards, perform better in almost every metric. But more than that, technology companies today are increasingly making long-term social societal impact, and diversity and inclusiveness are essential in shaping that future direction.”

Sarah Moran, Girl Geek Academy co-founder and chief executive:

“We need to be careful that Australia doesn’t continuously get swept up in Silicon Valley or offshore incidents. We run our own race in Australia and whilst we are conscious of global issues, there’s a lot of things pointing towards a very positive environment for women in tech here. Whilst there are many areas that are ripe for improvement, we don’t have the same entrenched or legacy issues in tech, because it is a younger community and we have the opportunity to correct the culture early.
“It’s also important that the misdemeanours of individuals don’t tarnish the many. That employee, with his extreme views, was effectively trolling the industry by writing those things and certainly can’t speak for Google or many in the industry.  I don’t want to give the comments too much focus because they are clearly extreme and ridiculous.
“It’s great that Google has acted swiftly to address this and has also released their diversity figures — the more transparency we can have around these topics the better. If this kick-starts a better conversation about what needs to change, that’s a good outcome.  
“But overall, the best thing we can do is keep creating opportunities for women and building out a tech sector that is as diverse as possible. Diversity is the seed of innovation — that’s good for everyone.”
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4 years ago

There’s Google being politically correct again.

Rohan Baker
Rohan Baker
4 years ago

Google wants diversity of everything except diversity of thought. Someone challenges that notion and BAM, see you later Jack. Instead they could have simply pointed out the fallacy of his argument, but nope, they went all SJW instead. Google therefore looses the argument by default.

Free speech? Pfft, that’s for loosers. Off to re-education camp for you sunshine.

Well, its a sad day when the Simpsons is no longer satire but factual real life:

4 years ago

WTF!!! Getting fired for having an opinion?! The world has gone mad.

On the diversity issue. What woman (or anyone else for that matter) wants to be put in a job because a quota has to be filled.

The reality of our existence is that we are different. Why should it be that only our genitals are different but we are exactly the same in every other way.

All we need to do is treat all comers equally and appoint people on merit. So what if there are more males in one industry and more females in another. As long as applicants are evaluated equitably and not whether they are proportionately represented, there will be no distortion. All that has happened is that the pendulum has swung completely to the opposite side and now the criteria for being chosen are physical instead of whether the person is the best candidate.

Who gives a sh*t what your sexual preference, gender, colour, religion or taste in movies is. I would hate to be employed because any one of those is not sufficiently represented in the organisation.

4 years ago

The full ‘manifesto’ is here

Much of it makes sense, and is worth discussing.

The employee writes: “Google’s political bias has equated the freedom from offence with psychological safety, but shaming into silence is the antithesis of psychological safety. This silencing has created an ideological echo chamber where some ideas are too sacred to be honestly discussed. The lack of discussion fosters the most extreme and authoritarian elements of this ideology”

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