There’s a growing energy around the idea of diversity intolerance. A collective snap back, if you will, that our insistence on inclusion and political correctness is creating its own sense of intolerance—intolerance of diverse opinions. It’s a perspective to explore, I think. Because it’s clear that the level of resentment towards political correctness in many circles has driven us to a flavor of political discourse that’s not yielding particularly effective outcomes for governance. So, the notion of diversity intolerance is something to reflect on. Even debate.
As for the memo and the resulting firing of the Google engineer that authored it, I’m sorry to say, this ain’t that. You’ll have to forgive me if I don’t dive head first into the alt-right v Silicon Valley mudslinging that’s going on. But, after fifteen years in the military prior to my transition into the California tech world, I’ve seen this movie one too many times. And I know how it ends.
The message that starts it usually begins with a proclamation that this is all for the greater good. Which is usually true in the eyes of the messenger. Then it raises some real, honest grievances about the processes of inclusion that are pretty hard to refute. Then comes the discussion about human nature. And then the heart felt appeal that this is in fact not about excluding a group, but protecting them, in some way, from a life they simply weren’t cut out for. It then concludes with a challenge for us to all be honest with ourselves about what’s really going on here before we do harm to something bigger than ourselves.
Somewhere, in the distance, you can almost hear Barry Goldwater’s 1964 anti-Civil Rights campaign slogan whistling in the wind. “In your heart, you know he’s right.”
In 1979, Jim Webb wrote the article Women Can’t Fight for the Washingtonian. It was, in a sense, the military version of the same argument in the Google memo. It was aimed at women attending service academies. And it was delivered by a decorated war hero. As a vet, and an Annapolis grad, Jim Webb was one of my heroes. This year, nearly 40 years after he wrote that article, Webb was selected to become a Distinguished Graduate of our school. Before it happened though, the women graduates rose up in protest. And Webb backed out.
As you can imagine, there was lots of debate about that too. I was less interested in the controversy. And more interested in why thousands of proud women who served their country successfully were so hurt by his words that they wouldn’t let it lie four decades later.
I talked to a few myself. I even wrote an article about it. The message was loud and clear. Webb’s message made their lives harder. His opinions made it difficult for them to serve. They were subjected to energized abuse and ridicule by those emboldened by the words of someone in his position. And for decades, even today, that article would circulate in the dark corners of the establishment, even though it’s been proven wrong a thousand times over.
Their protest matters to me. Not as someone trying to signal my gender diversity street cred. But as someone who’s had women serve in my command in a combat zone. You think integrating women SWE’s into a scrum team is hard? Try embedding one with a SEAL platoon at a remote outpost in Afghanistan. Talk to me about the “nature” of those women.
Oddly, the arguments against it were the same as what I saw in the Google memo. They were the same when women started flying planes. They were the same when they integrated my all male ship. And they were the same when they allowed gay Americans to serve.
These aren’t new ideas.
Women (on average) don’t have the temperament to be top software engineers.
Women aren’t mentally tough enough to handle combat environments.
Women don’t have the drive to handle corporate leadership roles.
Women don’t possess the logical objectivity to participate in the democratic process.
Women aren’t sophisticated enough to own their own property.
Women are property.
Those are all old ideas that we’ve moved beyond. Like the earth is the flat, motionless center of the universe. This last bit is just the 21st century, technology driven version of the same tired old argument put forward for millennia.
I don’t know how many women are supposed to be software engineers. But right now, at major firms, that number is about one in eight. What I do know though, is that if you want to solve a problem, and you get eight people in a room, and seven are dudes, you’re missing something. You’re missing some form of the emergent activity that comes from the friction of differing perspectives. And that may not be clear to the political minded or the closed system focus of an engineer who advocates for eliminating empathy and morality (his words not mine) but it’s clear to anyone that’s ever tried to build something great that lasts.
I don’t know if Google’s policies and programs are effective. I don’t work there. Chances are, if the argument were simply aimed at the programs, that guy still would. But they weren’t. They were aimed at bringing us back to a world where we describe “the nature” of a group as broad as half of all humans with finite certainty.
History isn’t kind to those that die on that hill. That’s the lesson I learned serving and leading in a world where inclusion for different people was a fight. And we’re about to learn it all over again.