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Google memo reflects familiar bias for women in STEM

A leaked internal memo at Google, written by a now-fired male employee, has raised serious questions for women looking to enter Silicon Valley tech companies or to join academic STEM departments, both known for allegations of being hostile environments for women.

The memo questioned whether discrimination is a factor in gender disparities in tech and at Google, and instead largely attributed those disparities to biology. The memo also railed against Google’s programs aimed to recruit and aid women and minorities, calling those programs themselves discriminatory.

“Discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive and bad for business,” the memo read. “I’ll concentrate on the extreme stance that all differences in outcome are due to differential treatment and the authoritarian element that’s required to actually discriminate to create equal representation.”

For female and minority employees in the tech industry, however, actual discrimination is well documented, and while the memo was widely condemned, it was another sign for some that tech culture — and STEM education — still has a ways to go in regard to how women and underrepresented minorities are treated.

“It is a universal problem. It’s not just industry, you have to remember, it’s connected to higher education,” said Karen Panetta, an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers fellow and dean of graduate engineering at Tufts University.

“That’s where it grows. It should be wiped out by higher education,” she said. “Where are these people coming from? They’re coming from higher education.”


The memo’s message isn’t just limited to the search giant itself, either, advocates said.

“Part of what the Google memo was calling out was some of the work Google has been doing around unconscious bias, and [the memo writer] kind of grabbed ahold of that language and flipped it in a problematic way,” said Heather Metcalf, director of research and analysis at the Association of Women in Science.

“Everyone holds different kinds of biases that are influenced by the values and the hierarchies … we have in society, and social stereotypes,” Metcalf said. “What that does over the course of a lifetime — not only does it limit the possibilities that we think that we have available for ourselves, but it also influences the appropriateness we think a person has for taking on a role, how we evaluate them as a candidate, how we evaluate the effectiveness they have as an employee or a student.”

A Familiar Feeling

For some women with engineering backgrounds, the memo — though offensive — wasn’t necessarily surprising, and it fit with what they’ve experienced in and outside academe.

“There’s definitely disciplines, industries and fields that still haven’t made the progress that is needed in regards to diversity, equity and inclusion. In that regard, I’m not surprised,” said Olga Pierrakos, chair of Wake Forest University’s new undergraduate engineering program, where three out of the four faculty members are women.

Pierrakos, previously a program director at the National Science Foundation, said she hopes that starting an engineering program with a fresh slate at Wake Forest will give her a chance to build an inclusive program.

“Knowing the engineering and higher ed landscape a little better, I would say there’s been effort and there’s been a chance to improve things in engineering education,” Pierrakos said, although sometimes, she noted, efforts and programs are more talk than action. “That’s where change occurs.”

Panetta, of Tufts, who previously worked in consulting, also emphasized higher education is a good starting point to change the culture in STEM. “If [higher education wants] to retain and attract women, we need role models,” she said. “The majority of faculty were trained mostly by men — they really never worked with women faculty in engineering.”

“You’re training people the way you were trained,” she said. “If you can’t break that cycle, it persists.”

Silver Linings

As disappointed as she was when she learned of the memo, Laurie Leshin, president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, said she had reason to hope after seeing some of the responses to it.

“While the memo clearly demonstrates that there is still significant work to be done to dramatically shift the tech culture, the overwhelmingly negative response it has received gives me hope that we are moving the needle,” she said via email. “Hopefully by exposing the pervasiveness of these demonstrably incorrect opinions, acceleration of change will be possible.”

For Panetta, the memo was a sign of validation. After it leaked to the press, the biases that women in STEM talk about facing were revealed to a wider audience.

“This actually exemplified that the problem exists everywhere, even at progressive companies like Google,” she said. “The problem persists because too many people, too many companies, too many academic institutions want to stick their head in the sand and don’t want to acknowledge that it’s there.”

“It validates that this is really happening,” she said.

Moving Forward

Solutions to discrimination against women and minorities in STEM are not necessarily simple or swift. Pierrakos pointed out structural and cultural norms at the root of companies and institutions often make real change difficult.

“[Change] starts with conversations to unite around common values, and then it has to be continuously drawn out in every aspect of that organization, and in everyday operations,” she said.

Culture is also an important part of Leshin's curriculum at WPI, she said.

“We strive to teach all (not only women and minorities) entering the tech world through WPI that the kind of skills they need for the future go far beyond just coding, or whatever relatively narrow set of skill they obtain in their major,” Leshin said. “Tech workers today need to be able to work in teams with people of all sorts of backgrounds to solve real-world problems, not just homework problems (or simple coding problems).”

Still, some solutions can seem impractical for individuals on the ground level.

“The big solution is for companies and academic institutions to take ownership,” Panetta said.

“Google is a data giant — they know darn well what their women are making, they know darn well what their numbers are,” she said in reference to a Department of Labor accusation of “systemic compensation disparities against women” at Google (the company has denied the charges, and the Labor Department’s access to company data is currently held up in court.)

“This is happening,” she said. “What are you going to do about it?”

Source: Inside Higher Education – News


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