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Source: USA Today


Photo by Arkadium.

The hot-button issue of gender bias in the workplace has just gone thermonuclear.

Over the weekend, an incendiary manifesto from Google software engineer James Damore — citing biology as one reason why women weren’t well represented in technology jobs or leadership positions — inflamed an already-contentious debate on the topic.

Then on Monday, Damore was fired. A frenzied social media firestorm ensued, with conservative commentators, women’s rights activists, rank-and-file workers and others bombarding social media with impassioned posts.

Some hailed Damore as a hero for his courage to pen a memo that touted the benefits of ideological diversity over gender diversity. Others said he was a bigot who fostered a hostile work environment.

The manifesto maelstrom puts a glaring spotlight on the challenges companies face in the drive for greater gender diversity and inclusion. There are myriad views on what it will take to achieve workplace equality, as well as lingering doubt that parity will ever come.

“There’s deep sociological change that needs to happen that can only happen over time,” says Jessica Rovello, CEO of Arkadium, a developer of AI tools for publishers, who adds that she has had frequent encounters with both overt and unconscious bias in her career.

“It will take years, if not decades, to have gender parity in the workplace,” she says. “But with small steps, we move forward.”

The issue became so serious Google CEO Sundar Pichai ended his vacation to discuss the matter with staffers and eventually making the decision to fire Damore. Pichai was expected to address the issue with employees Thursday but Google abruptly canceled that meeting amid concerns over employee safety.

Sexism continues
The Google imbroglio is just one in a string high-profile gender bias and harassment incidents at major companies of late, and comes as some firms ramp up their inclusion initiatives and work to eradicate an exclusionary, male-centric atmosphere.

The number of companies that have dedicated staff and funding to diversity programs, grew from 13% in 2011 to 17% in 2014, according to the latest survey data from the Society of Human Resource Management.

At companies such as Twitter and Microsoft, executives tasked with improving diversity and inclusion programs aim to create environments where women and minorities get a better chance of both landing jobs and thriving in their new positions.

Despite the slowly growing numbers of corporate inclusion initiatives and the punishments for bad behavior, women still hold fewer leadership positions than men, are paid less, aren’t fully represented in expanding industries such as tech, and still face high rates of harassment.

Consider:

  • -Nearly 70% of Google’s overall staffers are men, as is 75% of its leadership, according to company statistics from January 2017. Of the nation’s overall computing workforce, women make up just a quarter of workers, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology.
  • -In 2016, the median weekly full-time earnings for all female workers were $749 and equivalent for all male workers were $915, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey.
  • -Among Fortune 500 companies, 32 CEOs are women, according to Fortune magazine’s June tally, a record number that still represents only 6% of those corporate leaders.
  • -Almost 60% of women have reported some form of gender harassment, which includes sexist, crude or offensive behavior at work, according to a June 2016 U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report.

This increased focus on corporate diversity has put business leaders in the cross-hairs.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick stepped down in June after facing claims that he fostered a toxic and sexist work culture. Binary Capital partner Justin Caldbeck resigned a short while later from his VC firm after being accused of harassing women who were trying to raise money from him. Last year, Fox News CEO Roger Ailes was ousted in a sexual harassment scandal.

And there are questions about the effectiveness of such programs, and in some instances, concern that some initiates — and penalties — have gone too far. Both women and men recently stood by some of their embattled tech industry peers, such as VC Caldbeck, painting their punishments as too swift and harsh, and saying that some men have served as scapegoats for years of bottled up frustration over unchecked sexism in tech.

There’s a “witch hunt mentality,” says Heidi Dangelmaier, who runs an all-female innovation firm, GirlApproved, in New York.

Damore supporters urge dialog
In his memo, Damore laid out the differences between men and women, saying that on average, woman have higher anxiety and lower stress tolerance and that men have a higher drive for status.

While those thoughts outraged many people, others have urged that Damore’s points be assessed with balance.

“At most, Damore argues that because of innate cognitive and personality differences, a 50/50 gender balance in the tech sector may be unrealistic,” wrote USA TODAY Opinion contributor Cathy Young.

More on this topic: Twitter hires new VP of inclusion and diversity

Opinion: Congrats, Google, you found the worst way to build diversity

Speak out or stay quiet?: Google flap: How to have an opinion and still keep your job

Some leaders step up
Many male company leaders have stepped up to support stronger workplace policing.

LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman suggested Silicon Valley companies sign a “decency pledge” to hold managers accountable. VC firm The Foundry Group has a “Zero Tolerance Policy” on harassment, which it publicly posted in late June. Former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, now running fitness startup Chorus, suggested in July to Fortune that men start funneling more money to female entrepreneurs and VCs.

It’s vital that top-level executives push this message, since change has to come from the top down, says longtime venture capitalist Aileen Lee of Cowboy Ventures.

“The impression you get is it’s these guys in their 20s partying and misbehaving, but the bigger challenge is to get leaders of all ages to face the big gender and inclusion issues in our industry,” she says.

This is a good time for company chiefs to embrace introspection, says Joelle Emerson, CEO of diversity and inclusion strategy firm Paradigm.

“It’s easy to call out other companies and not really reflect on your own culture,” says Emerson, whose firm has worked with Lyft, Airbnb and Twitter.

Leaders also get outraged with egregious examples of sexual harassment, but often don’t pay attention to less apparent but also important areas, such as bias in hiring, she says.

“It’s all connected,” she says. “If you’re not hiring that many women, then there aren’t many in key meetings, and that can allow harassment to flourish.”

With debate continuing to swirl in the wake of the Google manifesto, men and women on both sides of the divide are making stands and airing grievances. This alone is a positive sign that perhaps change is coming, says Jahan Sagafi of Outten & Golden.

“Women are more confident now about coming forward and putting it out there,” he says. “With each additional woman who points out discrimination, there’s a chance to spur real change.”

Contributing: Marco della Cava, Alia E. Dastagir, Jessica Guynn, Elizabeth Weise and Jon Swartz

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