Is Open Dialogue the Solution to the Culture Wars of Silicon Valley?

As I write this, I'm on my way to visit my daughter at summer camp on the other side of the country. She’s getting along “pretty well” with most of the girls in her cabin, and I see this as a sign of maturity because this hasn’t always been the case. When you’re randomly assigned to live with eight strangers in small quarters for four weeks, you come across some who think just like you and some who don't.

So, camp was in the front of my mind when I read Nick Wingfield’s piece for the New York Times, in which he brings up many questions about the Google manifesto, software engineer James Damore’s firing, and how it stems from the culture wars in Silicon Valley. He writes, “The firing set off a furious debate over Google’s handling of the situation, with some accusing the company of silencing the engineer for speaking his mind. Supporters of women in tech praised Google. But for the right, it became a potent symbol of the tech industry’s intolerance of ideological diversity.”

When you can’t listen to where someone is coming from, how can you fix the problem?

If we want to create change in this world, we have to make an effort to not only change the minds of people we don't agree with, but listen, understand and be open to changing our own minds. While I detest the opinions Damore holds, when it comes to company culture, I believe our shared values need to triumph over singular opinions. It is challenging to run a company that fosters an environment where people with different values can work successfully together. And as we work towards having a more inclusive and diverse workplace, part of that challenge is recognizing the value in having diversity of opinion.

The Google controversy is happening against a backdrop when many are questioning Silicon Valley’s hiring practices and pushing towards a more inclusive future. Companies like Uber are trying to make corrective measures, starting with the firing of CEO Travis Kalanick and hiring of Bozoma Saint John as Uber’s Chief Brand Officer, who is now tasked with remaking their image. As Saint John works to make Uber a more diverse workplace, will this include finding ways to work with people who still carry misguided mindsets from the past, or, like Damore, will these people be cast away?

I am not saying Google should be more like my daughter's camp, where no one gets kicked out regardless of what views they hold. But I am saying there is value in trying to understand how others think. Of the many responses to the manifesto that I read, I didn't see anyone who said, “I want to investigate the reasons why there are people in Silicon Valley angered by Damore’s firing.” Kicking people out because they articulate something different from our viewpoint only reinforces a walled garden of thought.

In an effort to answer questions about Damore’s firing, Google was set to hold an open discussion and Town Hall yesterday. Google employees submitted over 500 questions to the Town Hall; however, it was canceled forty-five minutes before the meeting because the names of employees and their questions had been leaked to the press, and Google didn’t want to create an unsafe environment to ask these questions. So instead of dialogue, we now have silence.

When will we be able to discuss the real problems that plague our workplace openly instead of shutting down conversation before it begins?

Lesley Gold | Aug 2017

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