The fallout from one memo last August scraped the chrome off Google's image as a workplace defined by tolerance, open discussion and mutual respect enjoyed by all employees.
The memo was 10 pages long, titled "Google's Ideological Echo Chamber" and posted on an internal company discussion board. The author was then-Google engineer James Damore.
Damore's missive, including graphs and tables, was a critique of Google's diversity efforts — especially those focused on hiring women for technical positions. Google named a new vice president of diversity last June. The company also has emphasized its efforts to be an inclusive culture and released data about its workforce every year since 2014.
Damore's central thesis is that certain traits are not evenly distributed between the sexes (on a societal level), explaining a lack of 50-50 representation in tech jobs. According to Damore, this includes:
— Women on average show a higher interest in people, and men in things (like computers).
— Women are typically more cooperative (not a huge part of coding).
— Women on average look for more work-life balance, while men have a higher drive for status, on average.
He also said it was time to "stop alienating conservatives" for expressing opinions unpopular with liberals.
The memo was an immediate disruption for Google. Business Insider reported that the CEO cut his vacation short to respond and criticized Damore in a memo, saying: "To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.”
Damore was soon fired. And the Google culture, an in-depth Wired report shows, "has turned as polarized and toxic as the national political debate." Progressive diversity advocates report being harassed by some fellow employees who challenge the company's mindset, and vice versa.
The situation is partly supercharged by the influence of conservative media. Screenshots from Google's internal discussion forums have shown up on sites including Breitbart.com and the "alt-right" blog Vox Popoli. Lawsuits pointing in all directions have been filed.
Another Google engineer was fired in November. Gizmodo reports that he was dismissed after internal posts calling out what he felt was racism and sexism at the company, and he is suing for wrongful termination.
The ex-employee, who is transgender and has a disability, charges in his suit that Google failed to protect its employees from harassment on internal forums. And just weeks ago, Damore and another former Google employee filed a class-action suit against Google.
It alleges that company brass "goes to extreme — and illegal — lengths to encourage hiring managers to take protected categories such as race and/or gender into consideration as determinative hiring factors, to the detriment of Caucasian and male employees and potential employees."
Google's response: "We look forward to defending against Mr. Damore's lawsuit in court."
Meanwhile, in early January, four former employees filed suit against Google, claiming it discriminates against women in pay and promotion. In short, few are comforted, many aggrieved, and the meaning of diversity is up for grabs.