By Jo Sellick, managing director, Sellick Partnership
Google is known for being a forward-thinking organisation with a great employer brand. It is home to a workplace that barely needs to market itself and has potential candidates queuing up for a slice of the Google dream. You would assume, then, that every single employee is of the highest calibre and fully embodies the Google vision. So it was surprising to many when news emerged of a member of staff being fired when he published a company memo which suggested women were inherently less suited to certain tech roles.
Amongst other remarks, the former employee, James Damore, wrote: “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.” Google took the decision to fire Damore and the firm’s chief executive, Sundar Pichai, said parts of the memo “violate our code of conduct and cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes”. I agree with Pichai’s decision and believe Google had no other choice. Firms as big as the tech giant should be spearheading the fight against inequality in the workplace and they should have a solid sense of their company values. Whatever these values may be, it is important for companies to uphold their policies across the board and stay true to these morals. This ensures that the right kind of candidate is drawn to the workforce and that everybody is working towards the same end goal.
This is very different to prohibiting free speech in the workplace, which is equally risky. When the EU Referendum took place last year, it was great to hear staff discussing different political views and taking an interest in topical events. I like to see employees who are confident in displaying their personal viewpoints and setting out their arguments intelligently, but this is very different to saying something which you know could cause offence. We strive to have a diverse workforce, which of course includes employing people of differing viewpoints on all sorts of issues. But encouraging staff to express themselves while not offending others can be a fine line, and the onus is on senior management to decide what is and is not appropriate for that particular workplace. This should be set out in a clear code of conduct that everybody reads and understands, so that it does not come as a surprise if the employer takes action against comments that flout the rules.
In terms of Damore’s beliefs, I must express my disagreement and concern that he is assuming such outdated stereotypes when talking about suitability for roles. His assumptions could well cause as much offence to men as they may to women, as gender simply should not come into play when considering whether somebody is right for a job. Yes there is a gender imbalance in the technology sector, but this has nothing to do with biological differences and everything to do with education and how we talk about STEM subjects with children from an early age. If we are serious about equality we need to start educating boys and girls in STEM subjects at a grassroots level and ensure there are plenty of male and female role models working in the sector for young people to admire and emulate. This is a generational change that will take time, but it is entirely possible and initiatives like teaching coding to primary school pupils are extremely encouraging.
Diversity outside of gender is equally crucial and we should introduce mentorships within workplaces that help people of all backgrounds to progress in their chosen career. As National Inclusion Week approaches in September, I am keen to see businesses analysing their company data and seeing just how inclusive and diverse they are and we will be undertaking the same exercise ourselves. Once companies know this information, they can then take steps to address the balance moving forward. Until this kind of action happens we may well continue to see unequal workplaces which perpetuate outdated stereotypes and beliefs.