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What Does Psychological Safety Mean in Silicon Valley?

After a Google engineer released an anti-diversity memo, we have to reckon once again with sexism in tech

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This week, a very opinionated Google engineer decided to make his opinions very publicly known. He recorded them in a 10-page document titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” and sent them to his coworkers via a company listserv. Anyone who has worked for a giant corporation with tens of thousands of employees usually knows that when someone sends a lengthy, unsolicited email, the right thing to do is ignore it. But that’s not what happened this week, because the email in question was designed to enrage a significant portion of Google’s workforce, and eventually, thanks to a leak, the rest of the internet.

The document argued, among many things, that “we need to stop assuming that gender gaps imply sexism.” That the company was mistaken in its efforts to encourage a more diverse workforce by funding early STEM outreach efforts based on gender and race. That, biologically, women tend to be more neurotic and less assertive, and they prefer jobs in social and artistic areas. That men, based on the same logic, have “a higher drive for status” and find themselves in a gender role that “is currently inflexible.” He concluded his advice with a simple solution: Google should prioritize diverse ideas and make sure its employees feel comfortable sharing their opinions at work. “We should focus on psychological safety,” he wrote, “which has shown positive effects and should (hopefully) not lead to unfair discrimination.”

It’s worth noting that the opinion of a single engineer at a company of more than 70,000 isn’t that significant. Google’s new vice president of diversity, integrity, and governance, Danielle Brown, said as much this weekend after she was forced to respond to public outrage. “Many of you have read an internal document shared by someone in our engineering organization, expressing views on the natural abilities and characteristics of different genders, as well as whether one can speak freely of these things at Google,” she said in a statement provided to Motherboard, which broke the story. “And like many of you, I found that it advanced incorrect assumptions about gender. … It’s not a viewpoint that I or this company endorses, promotes or encourages.” Her dismissive response is understandable when you consider how the whole thing started in the first place. To her, the dumb opinion of a single dude in a department that has nothing to do with diversity-recruitment efforts probably felt like a Twitter egg in her mentions: easier to ignore than to engage with.

But in the larger context of Silicon Valley’s recent sexual harassment and gender discrimination scandals, the document has both outraged women in tech, and—according to a follow-up story by Motherboard—mobilized a handful of other men at the company who appear to share these beliefs. (White men, by the way, make up the majority of the company’s tech, non-tech and leadership positions.) This is unsurprising, given that Silicon Valley’s male-centric culture has yielded plenty of sexist sentiments this year, and many years before. What’s notable, however, is that these fringe supporters have attached themselves to the idea of free speech within the company, or as the author who started this whole thing put it: “psychological safety.”

“The fact that colleagues are calling for him to be fired—on very public forums—proves his point that there is an ideological silo and that dissenting opinions want to be silenced,” an anonymous Google employee told Motherboard. “Why don’t they debate him on his argument? Because it's easier to virtue signal by mentioning on a social network how angry and offended you are. Debate and discussion takes time.”

Whoever these people are, they are actively constructing a narrative—one in which a conglomerate refuses to allow its employees to speak out against what they believe; one in which a tech company that preaches creative thinking actually forces intellectual sameness. It’s a sneaky way of trying to make a few people with bad beliefs look like victims of a ruthless corporation, when that corporation is aiming to ensure a basic level of human respect. Demanding “psychological safety” for inherently sexist beliefs at work is akin to a white nationalist demanding “ideological diversity” as a conduit to share his hateful ideas on a university campus. Both purposefully conflate the importance of learning through discourse with the notion that we must debate all viewpoints.

The idea that women aren’t biologically inclined to be engineers isn’t far off from the late-19th-century Darwinism that said men were more evolved than women in both intellect and skill. That incorrect armchair logic was and is still used to deny women sought-after, powerful positions. We do not need to debate this idea because history has proved it to be a hegemonic tool, and it presents a diminutive and offensive idea of the female gender. Any company that allowed employees to do that would be granting legitimacy to a hurtful viewpoint that runs opposite to its outward-facing goals of inclusion.

Dumb thoughts are not illegal in America. And, judging by the nonreaction to this dumb manifesto, not a deal breaker for working in Google’s engineering department, either. But demanding that a company offer respect and space for every rambling, offensive email an employee sends out on a listserv is childish and unrealistic. In fact, it’s why the company developed excellent spam-detecting algorithms in the first place.