What Google can learn from “The Office” and Rand Paul about sexism in the workplace

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A Google employee who wrote a controversial internal memo criticizing the tech giant’s handling of diversity issues was fired this week, according to sources within the company and the former employee himself.

The author of the memo, which was originally obtained by Gizmodo and published with a headline decrying it as an “Anti-Diversity Screed,” argued that women and men have genuine psychological differences and that therefore gender gaps in hiring or leadership cannot be wholly attributed to sexist oppression.

According to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, the employee was fired for “advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.”

Perhaps anticipating such accusations of sexism, the memo’s author made sure to emphasize that he believed strongly in diversity and was “not saying that diversity is bad, that Google or society is 100% fair.” As one writer for The Atlantic rightly pointed out, the memo was not an “anti-diversity screed,” but was instead a critique of “the current means Google is using to pursue that end.”

These are complex issues. Science has yet to determine, and perhaps never will be able to determine, to what degree the differences between men and women are biologically programmed rather than socially constructed. Depending on which scientists you ask, the Google memo either “gets nearly all of the science and its implications exactly right” or peddles widely debunked pseudoscience.

To further complicate things, Google is currently the subject of a U.S. Labor Department investigation into gender pay discrimination.

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I don’t claim to have the definitive answers to these questions, but I do want to focus on a point made by the memo’s author and ignored by virtually everyone else. He wrote that “there’s significant overlap between men and women, so you can’t say anything about an individual given these population level distributions.”

He never claimed that women could not do the jobs of programmers or corporate executives, but rather that there are reasons other than discrimination that these fields aren’t split 50-50, and that to try to impose perfectly equal gender ratios would itself lead to discrimination.

He made it clear that he had no desire to “restrict people to certain gender roles” and that he was in fact “advocating for quite the opposite: treat people as individuals, not as just another member of their group (tribalism).”

Now, I’m no expert on gender theory, psychology or workplace optimization, but I do watch a hell of a lot of TV, and it seems to me that the hit NBC comedy “The Office” does an excellent job of demonstrating the pitfalls of tribalism and the superiority of an individualistic approach.

In the season two episode “Boys and Girls,” Jan Levinson, the show’s caricature of the high-stress, high-powered female executive, comes into the office to lead a women-in-the-workplace seminar that fails to achieve anything. It quickly becomes evident that the women of Dunder-Mifflin Scranton are divided by their personalities far more than they are united by their gender.

Angela is still a judgmental shrew, Meredith is still a white-trash alcoholic, and Kelly is still fixated on marriage, family and material possessions. Pam expresses the absurdity of treating “women” as a monolithic group when she tells the camera crew that she’s not sure how she fits in with the other women and that the coworker she feels she has the most in common with is Jim (AWWWWWWWW).

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Attempts to divide the office by race, gender or sexual orientation invariably end in absurdity and conflict, but these dust-ups are almost always easily resolved by ordinary, non-bureaucratic human interactions.

Several seasons later, Dwight pushes Kelly, whose sole ambitions in life involve family and material opulence, to apply for a minority executive training program. Once she’s applied, she quickly becomes a monster, turning herself into a caricature of Indian culture and flinging accusations of racism at anyone who contradicts her. The training itself is entirely wasted on her. Perhaps this is a case in which, the author of the Google memo might argue, pushing Kelly to become an executive actually did her a disservice.

In 2015, Senator Rand Paul argued that laws protecting gay people from being fired for their sexual orientation would have the unwanted side effect of setting “up a whole industry of people who want to sue.” His remarks were highly controversial (perhaps rightly so), but he was correct in pointing out that trying to solve workplace issues through bureaucratic imposition often creates more problems than it solves.

What do you think?

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