PIVOTAL MOMENTS

Google’s decision to fire James Damore meant choosing gender equality over freedom of expression

This week, Google faced a classic leadership decision. Google engineer James Damore had written a now-notorious memo that questioned its diversity policy and suggested that the gender gap in tech could be explained by biological differences between men and women. Google could fire Damore—thereby sending a clear signal to its employees, and to the rest of the world, that it would not tolerate gender discrimination or people who created a hostile work environment. But firing him would also mean undermining some of the company’s other goals—including fostering “a culture in which those with alternative views, including different political views, feel safe sharing their opinions” and Eric Schmidt’s stated principles of “freedom of expression” and “science-based thinking.”

Ultimately, Google fired Damore—a decision that has been applauded by some and derided by others. But the truth is that, for Google, there was no right decision. No matter what it decided, one of its cherished principles would be forced to take a backseat to the other.

Leadership decisions almost always require a tradeoff between competing goals or values. Sometimes the tradeoff is an operational decision—say, between improving back-end efficiency on a digital platform, or improving how easy the platform is for customers to use. Sometimes it is a strategic decision—choosing to focus on one customer group, like 28-to-42-year-old women, even if that means allocating less time and money to another customer group, like 18-to-28-year-old women.

And, as was the case with Google, sometimes the tradeoff is an ethical one. For example, do you decide to keep giving the teammate with a sick family member more days off, even though it forces other teammates to spend more time at work away from their own families? Do you decide to donate the company’s finite charitable funds to a school for disadvantaged kids, or to the hospital for cancer patients? No matter which choice leaders make, certain people will call them heartless jerks, hopeless idiots, or both.

That’s why decisions like these are defining moments. They force leaders to stop riding the fence and clarify what is truly at the core of their values. They no longer have the luxury of paying lip service to five or ten pleasant-sounding principles.

In Google’s case, the memo read round the world forced their leaders to concede that gender equality and freedom of expression can peacefully co-exist in many situations, but not all. It also showed that—contrary to what many technocrats would like to believe—“science-based thinking” doesn’t always produce the most enlightened belief systems (see also: eugenics).

Even if you adamantly disagree with most of the conclusions in Damore’s memo, you must admit that it reeks of science-based thinking and freedom of expression. If Google’s leaders had wanted to highlight their uncompromising commitment to those two principles, they would have continued Damore’s employment and then debunked his arguments one-by-one with the many other scientific viewpoints that oppose his stance.

But they didn’t. They made a values-based decision.

By deciding to show Damore the door, Google’s leaders implicitly told an entire generation of talented engineers that Google is a collection of real human beings who do in fact hold subjective opinions, rather than the unwaveringly rational Spock-like meritocracy of their boyhood fantasies. That message will no doubt be a cold splash of water on the faces of some talented male engineers, while offering a warm invitation to other talented engineers of both genders. In the perfect world of Google’s yesteryear, their core values were just vague enough to attract the cream of the crop from both groups. This decision ended that era.

Whether or not Google’s decision will make them a more successful business or a less successful one remains to be seen. Either way, Damore’s firing was a culture-defining moment for Google—and maybe even for Silicon Valley.

Follow Nick on Twitter. Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

home our picks popular latest obsessions search