Yes, You Can Be Fired for Circulating Bigoted Ideas at Work
Following reports that Google fired the author of an anti-diversity memo circulating at the company, alt-right activists went berserk, claiming the company had violated the First Amendment. Unsurprisingly, they're wrong.
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Yesterday, Google engineer James Damore, whose name is attributed to the controversial internal memo that was circulating at the company over the weekend, was fired, according to Bloomberg. The 10-page memo criticizes the company's diversity policies for being discriminatory and pointed to "differences in distributions of traits between men and women" for why there's a shortage of female representation in tech and leadership roles.
The memo analyzes how women's supposed "biological traits," such as being less assertive and more prone to anxiety, work against their ability to get parity in the tech field. The author also suggested that men are naturally inclined to work harder for leadership positions. "These positions often require long, stressful hours that may not be worth it if you want a balanced and fulfilling life," the memo reads. "Status is the primary metric that men are judged on, pushing many men into these higher paying, less satisfying jobs for the status that they entail."
When Motherboard reached out to Google for confirmation of Damore's firing, they were told that Google could not "comment on individual employee cases." But since the news broke on Bloomberg, alt-right activists have called for a boycott of Google, with some Twitter users going so far as to adopt the #JeSuisJamesDamore hashtag. Their argument is that if Google were really an inclusive place to work, its leadership would not have terminated Damore.
According to a memo CEO Sundar Pichai sent to Google employees on Monday evening, parts of the anti-diversity manifesto violated the company's Code of Conduct "and cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace."
Noreen Farrell is the executive director of Equal Rights Advocates, a civil rights organization dedicated to advancing work opportunity for women. "The reality is that the tech workplace is really infected with false stereotypes about women," she tells Broadly, "and that's why enforcing civil rights laws and codes of conduct is really critical to send strong messages that they can't be acted upon in a particular workplace." While the author's views may have been debatable, context is really what matters, Farrell says, and in this case, the memo was reportedly delivered and shared within the workplace. "Free speech is not protected if it creates a hostile environment for women. Period. End of story," she says.
Andrea Johnson, an Equal Justice Works Fellow at the National Women's Law Center, agrees. "If an employee is at will, an employer can fire the employee for any lawful reason," she tells Broadly. "If an employee is fired for expressing discriminatory and hostile views about women and violating the company's Code of Conduct in so doing, that company would be on pretty firm footing in terminating that employee."
Women already face various obstacles in the workplace without having to deal with co-workers who believe biological differences explain gender disparities. That's why Brande Stelling, senior vice president of advisory services at Catalyst, a nonprofit advocating for women in the workplace, says there should be zero tolerance for such views. "That is a clear line in the sand; it differs from an offhand comment," she tells Broadly. "People come to work to be judged on their merits—not to have to disprove someone's views on their ability based on biology rather than performance."
"This episode underscores that deep down, many still don't believe that women leaders are as good as men leaders," Stelling continues, "that, in fact, men are still seen as the default, whether it's the default leader or the default engineer. That makes it that much harder for women in the workplace who have to constantly prove their competence (as opposed to men starting with the presumption of competence) and to be evaluated on their merits, not stereotypes."
The sobering reality, Farrell says, is that "the memo reflects the attitudes held not just in tech but in other industries." By terminating Damore, she says, Google is showing its female employees that they've got the support of leadership. "Our hope is that Google continues to show to women workers that in other ways, like in pay equity, like in fair promotions, like in representation in management and on the board. But I think this is an important step today to say, we have the backs of women workers at Google."