Google gender memo: From intern to pariah

Google’s headquarters in Mountain View. (Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP, File)
Google’s headquarters in Mountain View. (Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP, File)

San Francisco - In the course of just a few days, the Google engineer fired on Monday over his 3 300-word memo on gender differences and the tech industry has become a rallying point for almost everyone: a pariah to some, a martyr to others.

James Damore was a software engineer at the search giant’s Mountain View headquarters until Monday afternoon, when he said he was fired for “perpetuating gender stereotypes” in his manifesto. It was published internally to Google employees late last week and argued that conservative viewpoints are suppressed at Google and that biological differences explain in part why more men work in software engineering than women.

Many in Silicon Valley denounced Damore’s arguments, including Google chief Sundar Pichai, who said Monday in a memo to employees that the engineer’s manifesto violated Google’s Code of Conduct and that suggesting “a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.”

But others – mainly right-wing groups – agreed with his description of a “politically correct monoculture” and in particular, saw Google’s decision to fire him for voicing an unpopular opinion as proving exactly his point. Julian Assange tweeted that WikiLeaks would hire Damore, adding “Censorship is for losers.”, a far-right social network, also offered Damore a job, calling his writing “a beautiful work of art.” Other supporters raised more than $5,000 on a crowdfunding campaign to help Damore fight his firing.

Damore has said that he is currently exploring all legal remedies. He filed a complaint against the Alphabet Inc. subsidiary with the National Labor Relations Board on Monday, contending he was subject to “coercive statements.” Damore explained in an online video that he wrote the memo because he thinks Google’s culture needs an overhaul.

“A lot of this came from me seeing some of the problems with our culture at Google, where a lot of people who weren’t in this group-think just felt totally isolated and alienated,” he told YouTube chat-show host Stefan Molyneux in an interview. “There were many people that came to me and said, ‘yeah I’m thinking of leaving Google because this is getting so bad.”’

In the video, the software engineer revealed he was inspired to create the document -- partly written during a 12-hour flight to China - after attending a secretive meeting on diversity that rubbed him the wrong way.

“There was a lot of just shaming: ‘no, you can’t say that. That’s sexist.’ There’s just so much hypocrisy in a lot of the things that they were saying,” he said on the video. “I decided to create the document to clarify my thoughts.”

Damore’s publicly available biographical details, mostly from his LinkedIn profile, are not all true: He says that he has a Ph.D. from Harvard University in Systems Biology, which his supporters frequently noted as a credential for him to talk about the biological differences between men and women.

A Harvard spokeswoman said Damore only completed a master’s in systems biology, a field that uses quantitative methods to study biological systems such as cells and organisms. A spokesman for the University of Illinois confirmed he has a Bachelor of Science degree in molecular and cellular biology from 2010. An online resume says he was a competitive chess player and held research positions at Harvard, Princeton University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

An online CV and Facebook profile suggest Damore hails from suburban Chicago. His Facebook page only has a few snippets: an album of charcoal sketches, including portraits of actors Will Smith and Keira Knightley, and posts such as one from 2013 saying how excited he was to be starting a job at Google in Mountain View soon.

PODCAST: Sexual harassment in Silicon Valley

After getting his master’s in 2013, Damore joined Google as a summer intern, according to his LinkedIn profile. He was hired after the internship and worked at the company for about four years as a software engineer. At the time he was fired, Damore was a level-five employee on Google’s internal 10-level ranking system, according to two people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified because the issue is private.

The firestorm is likely to continue. Pichai, who was away on a family vacation, cut his trip short to return to the Bay Area Tuesday, he said in his memo. He is expected to address the topic at TGIF, a company all-hands meeting, on Thursday, according to a Google spokesperson.

Damore could face an uphill battle if he tries to pursue a wrongful termination suit, legal experts said. The right to free speech typically protects only some government employees; Google has the right to fire workers for things they say at work or at home. Damore would have to prove he was trying to organize collective action among his fellow employees and was fired in retaliation for that, said Wilma Liebman, who chaired the National Labor Relations Board under President Barack Obama.In the interview with Molyneux, Damore wasn't asked about and didn't discuss his legal options.

"There’ve been a lot of negative reactions in the public, but very few of them send me messages,” he said in the video. “They don’t want to have a debate on why I’m wrong. In contrast, I’ve gotten a ton of personal messages of support, which is nice.”

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