“Mom, is it true that there are biological reasons why there are fewer women in tech and leadership?”
Of all the people to field that question, it's somewhat sobering that Susan Wojcicki — the CEO of YouTube — would be asked it by her own daughter.
"As my child asked me the question I’d long sought to overcome in my own life, I thought about how tragic it was that this unfounded bias was now being exposed to a new generation," Wojcicki wrote in a powerful and deeply personal new essay published by Fortune.
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Her daughter's question was prompted by a leaked internal memo written by an engineer at Google, which owns YouTube.
In case you literally missed the memo: James Damore, a former senior software engineer in Google’s search division, sent out a jaw-droppingly offensive analysis to his co-workers falsely asserting that there are biological explanations that justify a lack of female representation in tech fields.
With the memo, Damore was intending to curb bias among his colleagues that, in his opinion, unfairly attributed too much of the gender gap in tech to social factors (like sexism and implicit bias). The problem is, the gap exists solely because of those types of factors — not biological ones. His memo, which sparked frustrations and anger among Google employees, eventually leaked to the press. Damore was fired on Monday.
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Not only was the memo painfully inaccurate in explaining how biological differences between men and women supposedly justify the gender gap in tech, it also did very little in pointing out the systemic barriers and implicit biases that actually prevent women from excelling in the industry.
The memo was especially appalling to women like Wojcicki, who's spent much of her adult life overcoming very real (aka, absolutely not biologically based) barriers and biases against women in tech.
As Wojcicki wrote in her essay (emphasis added):
"I’ve had my abilities and commitment to my job questioned. I’ve been left out of key industry events and social gatherings. I’ve had meetings with external leaders where they primarily addressed the more junior male colleagues. I’ve had my comments frequently interrupted and my ideas ignored until they were rephrased by men. No matter how often this all happened, it still hurt."
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In her essay, Wojcicki also spelled out why Damore's firing isn't a matter of free speech, as some have argued. "While people may have a right to express their beliefs in public, that does not mean companies cannot take action when women are subjected to comments that perpetuate negative stereotypes about them based on their gender," Wojcicki noted, calling discrimination of all kinds against all groups of people inexcusable.
"What if we replaced the word 'women' in the memo with another group?" she wrote. "What if the memo said that biological differences amongst Black, Hispanic, or LGBTQ employees explained their underrepresentation in tech and leadership roles? ... I don’t ask this to compare one group to another, but rather to point out that the language of discrimination can take many different forms and none are acceptable or productive."
For Wojcicki, this issue isn't just personal to her — it's one that's shaping how her own child sees herself and her future.
So it makes sense that the YouTube CEO gave her daughter an answer that cuts straight to the truth.
"Do differences in biology explain the tech gender gap?"
"No," Wojcicki told her daughter. "It’s not true."