Google has fired the employee who wrote a manifesto critical of Google management, taking a largely untenable sexist position. Firing him was largely a mistake, in my view, because that act likely didn’t do anything but drive related positions underground. This is far from a simple issue that can be fixed with a termination.
There are many major levels to the diversity problem in technology. We not only have a problem in that tech firms tend to be predominantly male and white, but in salary. Men tend to make more money than women. But to fix any problem, we must fully understand what causes and perpetuates it. You’d think a firm made up of engineers and folks we refer to as “data scientists” would be willing to roll up their sleeves and study the problem to come up with sustainable solution. But you’d be wrong, because that would mean both sides would need to accept that their positions may not be well founded in fact.
In short, the reason we don’t seem to be making much progress is that there is too much focus on who is right and wrong and not enough focus on understanding the causes of diversity issues. But until you have a situation where the various sides of an issue like this are willing to consider that they might be wrong, you won’t make progress. Winning by executive action, in this case firing the employee who wrote the manifesto, doesn’t change belief as much as it drives it back into the dark.
Blaming the Messenger
Blaming the messenger is a frustrating issue for me because, when I finally decided what I wanted to do in college, it was to address problems just like this. The business field was called Manpower Management and it was based on the belief that you could put people in far more rewarding jobs if you spent a lot of time figuring out what they were naturally good at. Sadly, the tests tended to put white men into the best jobs because, at the time, most of the major schools were turning out a lot of well-qualified white men and lacked diversity. But, instead of fixing the school diversity, the placement tests were largely eliminated as racist. This isn’t that much different from shutting down studies on global warming to reduce the impression that we have a problem. In both cases, eliminating analysis doesn’t fix a problem. It may make it worse because you simply removed an unbiased source of data.
That was back in the 1970s. Here we are approaching 50 years later and the lack of testing certainly hasn’t fixed the diversity problem.
Understanding the Cause
We need to focus on two areas. One is the lack of qualified women coming out of major schools and the other is that when women are hired, they are hired at lower salaries. Once you are hired in at a lower salary, you will likely be underpaid throughout your career, unless you change companies, because raises tend to be tied back to that initial salary. And while you can get a kick up if you change firms, that new salary will still likely be partially set by what you were paid at the old firm so you can close the gap but often not fully eliminate it.
Now you could put in place programs to promote women through the schools, which is being done, but the results from that could take a decade or more to fully materialize. More quickly, you could look at your hiring practice and if women are being hired in for less due to a lack of perceived skills or education, you could provide a program that would focus on providing what they lack and reward them, once the course of study was complete, with a raise that brings them in line with their male peers.
But you must start with understanding why employees are initially being paid less. You may find that some men fall into this group as well (I did initially, for instance). Implement the program in a non-gender-specific way.
Fighting Fire with Fire Rarely Works
I should add that the common approach to fixing discrimination by discriminating, or forcing the underprivileged group to the head of the line, just changes the nature of the problem. It doesn’t fix it.
Applying Quality Controls to Management
Once hiring salary discrepancies are addressed, it is likely there is discrimination in raises as well, but this is because we don’t do a good job of training people to be managers or assuring that people who stink at managing other people don’t go into or stay in management. Management is more like a club; once you join, you always belong, even though we know certain types of folks should never manage others.
A quality process to increase the competence of managers could raise all boats and make the firm more successful, as well. Couple this with an effort to remove the stigma of removing someone from management.
Should the Manifesto Writer Have Been Fired? No, But…
Writing a large document critical of management that also belittles co-workers would be grounds for termination. The issue here, though, is one of belief. The manifesto in the news brought what was likely a commonly held set of beliefs public. Firing the individual who wrote it now runs the risk of turning that person into a free speech martyr, driving the related beliefs underground while strengthening the resolve of those who hold them. In my view, that isn’t fixing the core problem. That is making it worse.
Wrapping Up: Symptoms vs. Disease
We work and live in what is supposed to be a data-driven world in the tech market. Yet when it comes to critical issues, all sides are likely to avoid citing sources and instead just state beliefs, as if they are common and irrefutable. As a result, all sides of most issues are at least partially wrong and others can gleefully point to that wrongness as justification for the validity of their own wrong positions.
We must focus more on understanding the causes of problems and on making the correct decisions. That means our sources and analysis are both important, as is our willingness to at least accept the possibility that we are wrong.
This last is what all sides of most arguments don’t realize. Unless all willing to accept that they might be wrong, you’ll likely not make progress because no one likes a competition they can only lose. And, regardless of whether this is smart, often these things are more about appearing right than actually being right.
Finally, if we ever truly wanted to fix something like salary discrimination, we’d come up with a scientific method for measuring employee value. But given that many of the folks who’d have to drive this kind of change likely believe they are overpaid, it seems unlikely we’ll ever get there. Then again, as we move to ever higher automation, justifying the cost of such an effort will irrevocably fix that problem once and for all. In short, if you aren’t worth more than the machine slated to replace you, you’ll be gone, regardless of your level or title. It might be wise to know that value before this event occurs.
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+