Reminiscent of Jerry Maguire’s mission statement (“The Things We Think and Do Not Say”) and subsequent firing, it has been widely reported today that Google fired an employee for his “manifesto,” which purported to explain why women are not suited to working in the tech industry and/or why men are more biologically suited to the work. For example, the memo states that women are less suited to the industry because of their alleged inherent “neuroticism” and because men allegedly have a “higher drive for status.”
Neuroticism, the memo explains, is “higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance.”
Whichever way you put it, the result is the same—gender stereotyping—that, not coincidentally, Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, thought also, and carefully condemned the memo for promoting “harmful gender stereotypes” in these terms:
The memo has clearly impacted our co-workers, some of whom are hurting and feel judged based on their gender. Our co-workers shouldn’t have to worry that each time they open their mouths to speak in a meeting, they have to prove that they are not like the memo states, being “agreeable” rather than “assertive,” showing a “lower stress tolerance,” or being “neurotic.”
Gender stereotyping promotes all sorts of conduct that is ill-suited to the workplace and is demeaning to women. What types of conduct?
Here is a glossary of terms culled from contemporary news articles that also treat women adversely because of their gender:
“Mansplaining”: a close relative to manterruption, but different. Mansplaining is a man’s act of condescendingly explaining something to a woman—even when she hasn’t requested the information, or knows more about the topic than he does.
“Bropriating”: taking credit for a woman’s ideas as discussed here.
“Bro-Talk”: from the casual objectification of women to overt sexism and discrimination. See Sam Polk’s article discussing this phenomenon here.
These all may rise to the level of sex discrimination and unlawful harassment.
Legal Ramifications of Sex Stereotyping
While gender stereotypes are harmful, they may also be illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) determined in the U.S. Supreme Court case Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins. There, the Court noted that in the specific context of sex stereotyping, “an employer who acts on the basis of a belief that a woman cannot be aggressive, or that she must not be, has acted on the basis of gender…An employer who objects to aggressiveness in women but whose positions require this trait places women in an intolerable and impermissible Catch-22: out of a job if they behave aggressively and out of a job if they do not. Title VII lifts women out of this bind.”
As we wrote about here, sex discrimination is not just catcalling or making inappropriate comments about a woman, her anatomy, or women in general. It’s failing to hear a woman’s ideas in a strategy meeting until they are expressed by a man. Like in the blockbuster hit, “Hidden Figures,” it’s assuming that the black woman in the room, instead of a colleague, is there to empty the trash. It’s failing to promote a woman for being “strident” yet promoting a man for being “aggressive.”
It is familiar, and this Google employee’s memo publicizes and attempts to normalize this discrimination.
As Facebook COO and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant explained here:
“Almost every time the women started to speak, they were interrupted or shot down before finishing their pitch. When one had a good idea, a male writer would jump in and run with it before she could complete her thought.
Sadly, their experience is not unusual.
We’ve both seen it happen again and again. When a woman speaks in a professional setting, she walks a tightrope. Either she’s barely heard or she’s judged as too aggressive. When a man says virtually the same thing, heads nod in appreciation for his fine idea. As a result, women often decide that saying less is more.”
This is so not ok, yet it is ubiquitous.
Sanderberg entitled this article, unsurprisingly, “speaking while female.”
Do employees have a right to express themselves? Sure. Of course. But not in a way that violates the law and unlawfully marginalizes one group based on their inclusion in that group.
Employers should take stock of the Google situation and consider their workplaces do’s and don’ts. Employers would do well to:
- Have a Code of Conduct condemning unlawful discrimination and harassment, and follow the policy. Take swift and decisive corrective action, just like Google did here. Your company will have a solid defense to any EEOC investigation;
- Train your employees, supervisors, and managers so that they are not discriminating against one gender on the basis of sex— this includes the unequal treatment of women based on their gender, so pay attention in those meetings next time and see who you’re crediting with ideas and who you’re giving the best projects and sales leads to; and
- If the impact of favoring or crediting your male employees over your female employees causes your female employees to achieve less compensation or promotion, you may very well have a problem—a charge of sex and pay discrimination.