This piece was originally written for the now defunct political commentary website The Hitch.
The Google Memo: The Sexism that Lurks Beneath Public Shaming
Google’s work environment, I imagine, must now be a bit awkward for women. This is not because there is a hotbed of sexists secretly judging them that deserve to be fired, as the infamous google memo employee was. Rather, this is because in the act of firing a man with an attempt at an evidence-based approach to diversity, Google proved their willingness to be punitive in cases of viewpoint diversity; a harrowing trend that anyone who thinks for themselves, man and woman, should be concerned about.
Indeed, the statistics seem to bear this out; 56% of google employees surveyed believed James Damore should not have been fired (1). Presumably, some significant percentage of this are women. Women that have written in defence of Damore are numerous, Cathy Young and Debrah Soh being notable highlights. Think of the women who read Damore’s memo charitably and decided he did not deserve to be fired but rather listened to, reasoned with and alerted to John Barro’s insightful points about how behavioural trends, even those based on solid science, have a self-reinforcing effect (2). If one of those women had the guile to pen such a missive, it is hard to imagine they would’ve been fired for it. Despite the recent wave of feminism that supplants the cause of womankind at the expense of the individual liberty of certain women (i.e. of glamour models, dissident feminists, ex-Muslims critical of modesty culture, etc.) it is now the case that being a woman privileges a person per se to talk openly about the problem of workplace sexism and the gender gap without risking their reputation or career.
It would’ve been interesting to see what might’ve happened to female google employees who publicly agreed with Damore, had they come out in his defence and championed the cause of individualism that he outlined. Is it possible, in some warped blow of irony, that the firing of Damore was in its own way sexist? This is speculation at best, but it follows a pattern of activist-inflamed ignominy and public denunciations of people who a group of morale arbiters have decided are beyond the pale of public discourse.
Let’s turn other notable victims of this ideological lynch-mob to tease out the point. If a female academic had made a joke as meaninglessly silly as Tim Hunt did (3), would she have been fired? If a female scientist had worn a shirt as risqué as Dr Matt Taylor’s (4), would they have had to cry in apology at the offence they had putatively caused? Flipping the details about certain cases of public outrage is illuminating, even if it is hypothetical.
The worst these imaginary female transgressors might’ve faced is accusations of internalised misogyny, a charge that is by turns condescending and sanctimonious. This get out of jail free card is one of the most annoying trends in neofeminist critique. Where there should be room to re-assert that women are not a homogenous blob of passive actors, instead, women who reject the feminist label (Ella Whelan, Helen Pluckrose, Eleanor Sharman…to name a few) are accused of suffering from sort of internal hatred for themselves and womankind, or so goes the explanatory power of patriarchy theory. Internalised misogyny often comes to the rescue when women outwardly disagree with other women; instead of the much simpler explanation that intrasexual competition is a force at play, it is posited that a woman could only be nasty to another woman because society has conditioned her to.
Recently, I realised that a guardian commentator who had been singled out as sexist and creepy for being particularly critical of a female writer was in fact female herself. I pointed this out and was met with the self-righteous rejoinder that ‘internalised misogyny exists too you know!’. Perhaps it does, but I prefer to follow my own adage that one should never attribute to the machinations of the patriarchy what one can attribute to the simple act of disagreement. Women, men and google employees who think for themselves, eschew consensus and chime into an echo chamber with an original voice deserve to be heard, or at the very least should feel free to speak without the risk of being the latest object of public outrage.