What Google and Academia Still Don’t Understand About Safety
This week’s dust up over at Google has culminated in termination of 28 year old Harvard systems biology doctoral candiate turned engineer, James Damore*. Damore circulated an internal memo decrying efforts to promote diversity at Google which include educational programs for girls and a verbal commitment to hiring diversity. At the heart of his document, Damore argues that ‘psychological safety’ should include the ability to discuss biological differences that predispose men to success as engineers.
Damore’s essay is based on data Google collects on employee satisfaction which it shares somewhat openly in their ReWork site
One data set worth revisiting is Google’s self-analysis of the components of successful teams (left). Google found that groups that felt comfortable being vulnerable and supported in taking risks outperformed other teams. This foundation, which they termed ‘Psychological Safety’ was consistently more important than factors such as defined roles, deadlines and praise. If Google’s snappy infographic and Damore’s language seems vaguely familiar to you, you may be flashing back Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs from your intro psych class. The colors are bit different, but the premise is the same. In a safe supportive environment, teams excel.
There’s just one thing that’s missing both in the Google model and in academia right now. Physical as well as psychological safety. ReWork managers surely had to realize the clear parallel of their data to Maslow’s, but sadly opted not to move out of a self-congratulatory model which arguably spawned the bro-tastic rant and termination worthy tirade by Damore. Indeed, Damore arguably bastardized his safety to say whatever brotastic thing popped into his head with actual real world violence that women face. Much like academia, white males make up the overwhelming majority of Google’s upper and middle tier workers. And, like academia, there is an enormous amount of talk about how important intellectual, gender and racial diversity is to sustained growth.
The critical difference between the ReWork model and Maslow’s is that Google presumes physical safety of their workers. Not only is this a willfully ignorant notion in tech, it is also a very real issue in academia, particularly but certainly not exclusively for women and minorities.
Take for example, the 1989 killing spree undertaken by Marc Lepine at Ecole Polytechnique. In one afternoon, Lepine killed 14 women and injured 10 more in an anti-feminist shooting rampage. From source,
Lépine then separated the nine women from the approximately fifty men and ordered the men to leave. Speaking in French, he asked the remaining women whether they knew why they were there, and when one student replied “no,” he answered:
“I am fighting feminism”. One of the students, Nathalie Provost, said,
“Look, we are just women studying engineering, not necessarily feminists ready to march on the streets to shout we are against men, just students intent on leading a normal life.”
Lépine responded that “You’re women, you’re going to be engineers. You’re all a bunch of feminists. I hate feminists.”
The last six weeks alone has seen:
A New York doctor murder and gravely injure colleagues after being found guilty of sexual harassment.
A black female Princeton professor was forced to cancel all public speaking engagements after dozens of death threats.
The LA Times revealed that the former dean of USC medical school history of sexual harassment, bullying and aggressive behaviors that went unchecked. These behaviors spiraling into years of on-campus criminal behavior involving police, prostitutes and drugs.
A lawsuit at the prestigious (?) Salk Institute brought by female faculty alleging sex discrimination.
Gina Baucom put out a call to women for ‘what’s the most sexist and hateful thing academics have said to you’? The answers were epic.
As a woman and/or minority, it is depressingly easy to see these horrors and compare them to the relative ease with which white male teams move through academic and tech life. With a system of peer performance review not disimilar to academics, Google may have to dig deep into their pockets to show that they don’t have a hostile work enviroment. I’m keeping a watchful and hopeful eye on the significant legal and financial repercussions that have to follow these cases in tech and academia. In a moment of brutal candor, Hillary Clinton told Black Lives Matter activists that they didn’t need to change everyone’s mind. They just needed laws and money to force even the unwilling to ensure not just a seat at the table, but a safe seat at the table. Failing to provide the physically as well as psychologically safe environments is going to cost too much and tech and academic giants will take notice. Indeed, lawsuits both in academia and in tech on the grounds of discrimination and harassment are already piling up. Let’s keep an eye on those.
Update: Thanks to @drugmonkeyblog for pointing out that there are reports Damore left the doctoral program with his masters degree.