When Sundar Pichai faced his first big public challenge as chief executive of Google, he probably would not have imagined it would put him in the crosshairs of the alt-right media website Breitbart.
An Indian engineer who had risen, largely unnoticed outside Google, to head the world’s largest internet company, Mr Pichai has made a virtue of avoiding public confrontation. A natural conciliator, he has shown none of the hunger of Google’s founders for challenging conventional wisdom, even at the cost of giving offence.
But this week, Mr Pichai acted quickly to quell a controversy that was threatening to engulf his company — and stepped squarely into the middle of one of Silicon Valley’s most heated debates.
The storm blew up over the weekend after a 3,500-word internal memo from a Google engineer went public. Written by James Damore, the paper accused the company of creating an “ideological echo chamber” where honest debate on sensitive issues was outlawed. The author’s own, contentious position: that biological differences make men more suited to engineering and leadership positions in the tech industry than women.
By Monday, Mr Damore had been sacked. But the controversy will not be laid to rest so quickly. It has left Mr Pichai in the invidious position of having to decide on an explosive issue that has divided Google’s engineering ranks. And it has also, once again, exposed Silicon Valley’s gender gulf, while touching a raw political nerve for both Google and the tech industry at large.
To his critics on the right, Mr Pichai has fallen into a classic liberal trap of silencing free speech in the name of political correctness. To make things worse, he has acted to shut down a debate that was ostensibly carried out in the name of science. For a company that has always prided itself on its open internal communications and uncompromising devotion to intellectual rigour, the decision was not easy.
Mr Damore, who had been on a PhD programme in systems biology at Harvard University before joining Google, presented his case with the dispassionate detachment of the scientist. “I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership,” he wrote.
His supporters have been quick to come to his defence. Eric Weinstein, a managing director at Thiel Capital — the investment firm of Peter Thiel, US President Donald Trump’s most outspoken Silicon Valley supporter — took to Twitter to sum up the argument: “I believe that Google just fired a biologist & created an unsafe work environment for *anyone* who even entertains selection in humans.” In another tweet addressed directly at Google, he added: “Stop teaching my girl that her path to financial freedom lies not in coding but in complaining to HR.”
Mr Damore could not be contacted, but he summed up his own, blunt termination in a brief email to Breitbart: “They just fired me for ‘perpetuating gender stereotypes’.” Mr Damore also claimed to have received many messages of support from colleagues, although public comments from Google staff have been overwhelmingly in opposition.
With such an opening to challenge a company known for its liberal leanings, Breitbart quickly weighed in. One headline blared: “Google’s Social Justice Warriors Create Wrongthink Blacklists”, with “leftwing” managers at the company accused of creating lists of workers whose political views made them unacceptable.
For Mr Pichai, meanwhile, writing off an entire class of Google’s workers put Mr Damore beyond the pale and demanded action.
“To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK,” he wrote in an email to employees on Monday. Circulating those views, he added, had breached Google’s code of conduct, which requires its workers to support “a workplace culture that is free of harassment, intimidation, bias and unlawful discrimination”.
He may also have had the internal strife at Uber in mind in moving to end the controversy. Earlier this year, an explosive memo from a female engineer at the ride-hailing company accused senior management of turning a blind eye to persistent sexual harassment. Faced with his own explosive internal memo on gender, Mr Pichai was not about to leave himself exposed to similar claims.
Given the rising anger inside the company, he may have had little choice. But, as political attacks from the right mounted on Tuesday, it was not a position he could have welcomed.
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