When ‘scientific theory’ amounts to old-fashioned sexismAugust 10, 2017
Julia Beasley, Head of Employment at Burroughs Day Solicitors, considers the issues raised by Google sacking an employee who wrote an "anti-diversity manifesto".
People are dismissed every day for their behaviour in the workplace – but few obtain the notoriety of James Damore, a software engineer sacked by Google in the US for ‘perpetuating gender stereotypes’.
Mr Damore, who is a biology science graduate, had sent a memo to his colleagues entitled 'Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber' arguing that the under representation of women and racial minorities was partly down to biology. He accused women of being more prone to neuroticism then men. His view was that political conservatives faced discrimination, and Google should not actively promote diversity in its workforce.
Google CEO Sundar Pichari issued a statement saying that Google supported the right of workers to express themselves but ‘portions of the memo violate our 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.’
Predictably Mr Damore’s memo unleashed fury among those who believe that diversity in employment needs to be actively progressed, and Mr Damore’s actions were unacceptable. There has also been a backlash from those who sympathise with Mr Damore’s views or at least the right to express them.
The real issue is not whether Mr Damore’s views are correct. We understand that he has a degree in biology. That would not make him an expert on diversity in the workplace, and indeed it is doubtful that he understands very much about unlawful discrimination at work. Fortunately our law makers have looked into this issue in great depth. As a result, we have the Equality Act 2010 to render unlawful certain unacceptable practices that oppress people with ‘protected characteristics’ such as sex, race and disability.
At heart, the Google brouhaha is about the right to freedom of speech in the workplace. Did Google do the right thing in dismissing Mr Damore for expounding his views? Does this type of debate in the workplace really merit a person losing their job?
Every employer should have a code of conduct for its workers/employees. This may take the form of a ‘dignity at work’ or ‘diversity’ policy. Essentially, such a code requires that people who work together must treat each other with mutual respect.
It is about being reasonable, sensible – and yes, sensitive - when expressing forceful opinions. In practice, contentious views can upset colleagues and might even amount to harassment.
The sound of clashing ideologies is often heard loud and clear in the Employment Tribunals. For example, where one person’s deeply held religious belief amounts to homophobia, their dismissal will be fair.
In Mr Damore’s case, his ‘scientific’ theory of women’s skills sounds to us suspiciously like old-fashioned sexism and racism. No one should be surprised that broadcasting it in the workplace, has lost him his job.