Everything Depends on the Aim

Posted: August 27, 2017 in Powerful Ideas
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by Richard Martin

An engineer employed by Google—James Damore—was recently fired for writing and circulating an internal memo criticizing aspects of Google’s diversity policies, specifically corporate goals regarding the ratio of women and men in software work. I won’t go into the details of the arguments for and against, except to illustrate how the selection of the aim has an impact on the scope and validity of the ways and means of achieving it.

My purpose is to look at the structure and logic of the problem to show that the objective conditions and delineates the analysis of the problem, how it is resolved, and what are considered acceptable and unacceptable questions and factors for consideration, planning, and decision-making. This newsletter is longer than usual because I think a failure to understand the logic of arguments and reasoning underlie most social and organizational conflict. This can in turn have a major impact on performance and readiness.

Google’s objective appears to be (approximately) equal numbers of men and women in software development, programming and engineering. It follows that only options which have a realistic chance of achieving that aim should be developed and considered for implementation. Anything that questions that objective should not be considered any further as it may undermine its achievement and take resources from better uses.

Damore’s memo didn’t question gender equality in itself, rather the wisdom of Google’s goal in service of that aim. His questions and skepticism weren’t addressed at the ways and means of achieving the aim, but rather at the goal itself. In other words, Damore’s memo was at a different logical level than the stated Google policy. If you set the goal as a 50/50 split of men and women in engineering and other technical jobs, and that’s non-negotiable, then it follows that you must, of necessity, consider only alternatives that can achieve that. On the other hand, if the goal is gender/sexual equality in general, then aiming for 50/50 split may or may not be a realistic or desirable way of achieving that.

This is where values and underlying beliefs come into play. In terms of beliefs, there are three big assumptions leading to the Google objective of 50/50 split. IF men and women have equal capabilities (in any meaningful and statistically significant sense), and IF there is no coercion (explicit and/or implicit), and IF there is no stereotyping (subtle or not so subtle) in hiring and managerial practices by Google or any other employers, then it follows that aiming for an equal split (or close thereto) between men and women is a desirable and achievable goal.

All three of these IFS are empirical questions that can be answered through rigorous research and analysis. For the record, my personal belief is that any statistically significant capability and performance differences that are demonstrated scientifically between men and women are merely of academic interest IF AND ONLY IF there is no coercion and no stereotyping. With that said, capability, coercion and stereotyping can be slippery concepts. Ideology can influence all three, especially coercion, as it is related to power and hierarchical relationships.

So much for the underlying assumptions and beliefs. What about values? In a culture that values well-defined sex roles, it follows that sexual/gender differences, coercion, and stereotyping won’t even be questioned. They will simply be assumed and justified, usually based on what is viewed as common sense and custom. We on the other hand, live in a society that values sexual and gender equality. Why? Because we have an even higher level value which we call freedom of choice. We believe that anyone should be allowed (and even encouraged) to choose whatever education, job, and career that they want. And what someone wants should be defined by whatever mix of challenge, interest, satisfaction, pleasure, ease, investment, and compensation they find most appealing at any specific time, so long as there is demand for that work, and it doesn’t undermine someone else’s goals through coercion or stereotyping. All this follows necessarily from our western values of individualism and self-actualization.

If we value freedom of choice, then it follows that people should be allowed and encouraged to choose whichever career they deem most acceptable and satisfactory to them. However, this may or may not result in a 50/50 split, either within any specific organization, or society in general. It could be 10/90, 60/40, 49.999/50.001, or another other ratio. And that’s only in one specific work area, in this case software-related jobs.

I have no doubt that Google’s senior managers believe firmly in sexual and gender equality. I would also bet that most, if not all, its leaders and employees hold deeply to the values of non-coercion, non-stereotyping, and freedom, at least as regard career and occupational choice. Google has apparently chosen to pursue a 50/50 split between men and women as the means of achieving the goal of gender equality and diversity. From that perspective, the Damore memo can undermine its implementation and achievement.

On the other hand, Damore raises some interesting questions. Can Google’s stated policies and goals generate coercion and stereotyping of men? Can the 50/50 goal lead to a kind of affirmative action where capable men are being sidelined by less-than-capable women? Could this undermine the company’s long-term viability, sustainability, and culture of performance? By adopting a quantitative goal, is Google trying to solve a social problem that it didn’t create and for which it may not be well adapted?

I don’t have the answers to such questions, and I suspect no one else does either, at least not in the short term. But aren’t they worth asking and examining? By firing Damore, Google has sent a clear message that the decision to pursue literal sexual/gender equality is taken and will not be undermined. Management has taken a stand will not brook internal opposition or questioning. The train has left the station. On the other hand, Damore raises valuable questions from the standpoint of corporate governance and societal change. It’s not Google’s job to solve all of society’s problems, but nor can the issues be ignored by such a big and influential economic player.

My purpose here has been to analyze the logical structure of the problem and the goals these lead to. I chose the Google-Damore case because it allowed me to highlight what I consider to be the most salient aspects of decision-making and management. I’ve shown how goals are conditioned by values, assumptions, and beliefs, and that goals then limit or expand the problem space. We must choose our goals judiciously and calibrate them to our underlying beliefs and values, as this directly influences the scope and validity of our plans and readiness to implement them.

© 2017 Alcera Consulting Inc. This article may be used for non-commercial use with proper attribution.

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