Why Google's Misstep Could Be the Best Thing for Equity in the Indian Workplace

With the current attitude towards women in workplaces, we have to equip ourselves with stronger weapons to fight implicit biases and explicit social norms.

In most developing countries, female labour force participation (FLFP) rises with the Gross Domestic Product. But in India, it's the opposite. Credit: Reuters

In most developing countries, female labour force participation (FLFP) rises with the gross domestic product. But in India, it’s the opposite. Credit: Reuters

Last week, James Damore, a software engineer at Google published his ten-page manifesto railing against the company’s diversity initiatives. His pop science laden argument on why men and women are biologically different, and hence equity in leadership aspirations are inherently futile, caused an uproar in the technology world. Believers in gender equality heaved a collective sigh of relief when he was swiftly fired, much faster than Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and without a #deletegoogle campaign to boot. Our faith in Google was restored.

But beyond the drama, Damore’s memo had some positives. It has forced people like me, practitioners in the inclusion and diversity space, to take a hard look at our work and clearly address the objections of the many Damores that make up India Inc.

Where are these explicit biases coming from?

As a diversity consultant, I work on implicit biases that hinder women’s progress in the workplace. But much like James Damore, Indian businesses display not only implicit biases but many explicit reservations towards working women. Nowhere is this more evident that in the attitude towards women who are perceived as ambitious. Many openly question a woman’s role in the workplace.

Explicit biases can also be subtle. Damore’s memo attempts to quote scientific evidences towards innate biological differences in men and women and draws the misguided link to success at workplace. As with any pseudo-scientific rhetoric, cherry-picking of theories can often lead to very wrong conclusions. But the more important lesson is that under the guise of a professional and calm tone, the memo achieved a much more profound effect – it has given excuse to the disbelievers to feel more wronged, the men on the fence to completely ignore the privileges their gender hands out to them.

In most developing countries, the female labour force participation (FLFP) rises with Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The causation is obvious: growth leads to more opportunities, incentivising families to educate their girl child and the girl child goes out to carve her space in the workforce. But in India, it’s the opposite. From 1995 to 2015, India’s GDP per capita quadrupled but the FLFP fell by 9%. Harvard economist Rohini Pande argues that the reason for this reverse trend is not the lack of government intervention or the limits on women’s choice; our regressive social norms are the barrier. The missing piece in India’s reverse equation is nothing other than our perception of what constitutes the acceptable behaviour of women.

A study by the Indian Human Development Survey in 2011 showed that a large proportion of Indian women require permission to even venture out to visit the health centre or the market. With attitudes like these, we have to equip ourselves with stronger weapons to fight implicit biases and explicit social norms. A much deeper, structured thinking on economics of behaviour, cultural indicators and study of race is needed.

Google recently fired its employee James Damore for a controversial anti-diversity memo. Credit: Reuters

Google recently fired its employee James Damore for a controversial anti-diversity memo. Credit: Reuters

Awareness trainings by corporates

Many corporates and startups now have an array of gender sensitisation and awareness sessions. While I do not deny the value of these initiatives, the diversity dialogue can stagnate quickly if big issues are not acknowledged.

Firstly, let us address the futility of such one-time trainings. More often than not, mandated trainings get people’s defences up as opposed to creating champions in the space. These defences are not to be disregarded as simply a sexist attitude. Often, there are social and economic reasons for these pushbacks. One of the assumptions that most skeptics make is that they attribute differences in skills and abilities to perform at a job to the demography one belongs to: male or female. Aggression, ability to lead, ability to perform under pressure are categorised as masculine whereas collaboration, nurturing team members and being a better team player are the normal expectations from women leaders.

The famous Heidi Roizen case study showed that the simple act of changing a person’s gender (from Heidi to Howard) made readers judge the protagonist differently. Heidi and Howard were both found to be similarly competent leaders but predictably, Heidi was less likeable with a less probability of getting hired. If students of Columbia Business School hold the same negative stereotypes towards women, Indian patriarchy is surely a lot harder to dissuade.

Changing someone’s attitudes isn’t easy. Sceptics of diversity aren’t convinced that a more diverse and equitable workplace positively impacts business. But it’s a simple solution. To achieve diversity, one should measure it, monitor it and then show them the data. A simple chart on the correlation of women in the boardroom to stock market participation will raise the obvious question of causation. Instead, measure the effectiveness of your own initiatives and show it to the managers who are recruiting.

For instance, neurodiversity won champions all over the world when Ultra Testing, an IT firm, showed how their business benefitted with 70% of the employees coming from the autistic spectrum. Simple economics of demand has made the Indian IT industry boast of a 40% diverse workforce. To stay competitive, the tech industry cannot hop on one leg; they need to sprint on both. They should hire a big bulk of graduating women, ensure that safety and harassment policies are extremely stringent and that they try their best to achieve pay parity. Equity and diversity will follow suit.

No dialogue in workplaces

Finally, the lack of dialogue in this space polarises people who are on the fence. While I wholeheartedly support Sundar Pichai’s decision to take on the issue headlong instead of delegating it to human resources or to his head of diversity, there need to be more opportunities for dialogue.

Let those volleys of skepticism, misunderstanding of gender science come our way; we need to give men (and women) a chance to express their views in the workplace. I would rather the diversity-sceptic manager asks me difficult questions than cross someone’s line of consent or deny the deserving woman candidate a job (Prescriptive stereotype – holding one woman responsible for all women leaving the workforce). Recently, Deloitte did away with their women networks and other affinity groups as they were found to be more polarising in approach and not efficient in making a dent in diversity in leadership – which was its main objective.

So let’s take a cue from this hot Google debate and re-think our diversity agenda. Perhaps it’s time to think beyond women-centric celebrations. Just as James Damore had intended through his manifesto, there is a chance we may fall into the echo chamber where the skeptic raises a concern and the righteous silences it with its ideology.

Ishani Roy is the founder, Serein Inc, a diversity and inclusion consulting company.